News Roundup: Mueller Speaks

Special Counsel Robert Mueller made his long-awaited and much-anticipated appearance before Congress on Wednesday, first testifying at a House Judiciary Committee hearing and in the afternoon at a House Intelligence Committee hearing.

As Mueller had previously warned, his testimony did not extend much beyond what was in his 400-plus-page report, but the hearings — and the special counsel himself — made clear that his report was not a “total exoneration,” as President Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed. “That is not what the report said,” Mueller said in response to a question from Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler.

Nor did Mueller’s investigation clear the president of any wrongdoing. As American Oversight Chief Oversight Counsel Molly Claflin explained, “Mueller made clear that he could not indict the president due solely to longstanding Justice Department policy — not because of lack of evidence of wrongdoing. That is, with the same evidence, any other American would have been charged with a crime.” 

While a significant portion of Mueller’s responses were simple “yes” or “no” answers, or instructions to refer to his report, he did offer a serious warning about the threat of continued election interference on the part of Russia. “They’re doing it as we sit here,” Mueller said. “I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is.” (Just hours after Mueller’s testimony, Republican senators blocked a series of House-passed election security bills, including two bills that would require campaigns to report any foreign election-interference attempts.) And when Rep. Mike Quigley asked him about his take on Trump’s welcoming of Wikileaks’ help during the 2016 campaign, Mueller said that to call such behavior “problematic” would be an “understatement.” As American Oversight’s Claflin said, another description would be “just shy of a criminal conspiracy.” (You can hear more from Claflin on the “Reaction to the Mueller Testimony” episode of “The Asset,” a podcast about Trump’s ties to Russia.)

Of course, the Trump administration’s deep-rooted corruption extends beyond collusion. From abuses of power and unprecedented financial conflicts of interest to long-term environmental damage for the sake of industry profit, American Oversight has been investigating the governmental misconduct that infects seemingly every corner of the administration. And since the Mueller hearings weren’t the only things to happen this week, here’s a rundown of what else has been going on:

New FOIA Legislation: Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government has broad power to withhold “confidential” business information under Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act — previously, such information was only considered confidential if its release would result in “substantial competitive harm.” In response, a bipartisan group of senators have introduced the Open and Responsive Government Act, which strengthen the Freedom of Information Act by restoring that original standard.

Interior’s FOIA Processing: In response to American Oversight and other watchdog groups’ request, the Department of the Interior’s inspector general is investigating whether recent changes to the agency’s FOIA processing has allowed political appointees to violate transparency laws. In late 2018, Interior had proposed rules that would allow it to refuse FOIA requests it decided were too burdensome, and the department also implemented an “Awareness Policy” that required staff reviewing requests to notify political appointees if those appointees’ names or email addresses appeared in documents.

Continuing Sabotage of the ACA: This spring, the Trump administration finalized a change to its premium indexing methodology that is used to calculate the required contribution amounts for consumers in the Affordable Care Act marketplace. The change is expected to raise premiums for millions of Americans, and even Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, warned that it “would cause coverage losses, further premium increases, and market disruption.” We filed FOIA requests to learn why the administration decided to overrule Verma.

Government Holiday Parties — at the Trump Hotel: Back in December 2017, the Commerce Department held a holiday party for political appointees at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. (The event appeared on Commerce Chief of Staff Wendy Teramoto’s calendar, which we obtained.) We’re investigating whether Commerce funds were used to finance the event — money that would have gone to Trump’s pockets.

“With Extreme Displeasure”: That’s what Education Secretary Betsy DeVos commented below her signature on a publicly released decision memo that approved the discharge of loans for 16,000 students who claimed their college had misled them or violated the law. The memo was from May 2017, and those students’ borrower defense claims had been granted in the final days of the Obama administration. Since then, DeVos has slow-walked new applications for federal student loan relief, letting pending claims swell to more than 150,000 this past April. We want to know if DeVos has similarly offered her opinions and commentary on other important decisions, and have filed a FOIA request.

Private Prison Industry: Along with the organization Worth Rises, American Oversight is investigating the influence that some of the most powerful private-sector prison operators and contractors have exercised over federal policymakers in recent years. One company, GEO Group, operates the Adelanto Immigration and Customs and Enforcement Processing Center, where investigators reported on inadequate medical care and inhumane treatment. Such reports are widespread across the country. We’re asking for communications that various private entities had with certain political appointees in ICE, the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, and the Federal Communications Commission.

Opioid Crisis: The 2016 Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act called for the convening of a task force among various federal agencies that would provide recommendations on the managing of chronic and acute pain. That task force has issued its first report, but questions have been raised about potential conflicts of interest between task force members and opioid and medical device manufacturers. We filed FOIA requests with multiple agencies to shed light on these potential conflicts.

Trump’s Ambassador to Israel: David Friedman, the United States’ ambassador to Israel, has advocated for a number of controversial shifts in U.S. foreign policy toward the country, including moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. We’re asking the State Department for Friedman’s communications with GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, or about the newly named “Trump Heights,” a settlement in the Golan Heights.

Defense Secretary Esper: On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Trump’s nominee for Pentagon chief, Mark Esper. Esper had previously served as secretary of the army, and before that worked as a lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon. Lobbying disclosure reports indicate that Esper was actively lobbying the Trump administration throughout much of 2017. We’ve been investigating his ties to his former employer, and this week filed more FOIA requests for agency communications with him or other Raytheon representatives from the months before he joined the administration in November 2017.

New Pompeo Lawsuit: As part of our investigation into whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been subject to inappropriate political influences during his tenure in the administration, we filed a lawsuit for records of his communications with outside entities and specific lawmakers. Pompeo has reportedly considered a 2020 run for Senate in Kansas, and we want to know if he’s been using his position to lay the groundwork for further political ambitions.

For-Profit Colleges: The New York Times this week reported on emails that show top Education Department officials pulling strings for a financially troubled company that owned a for-profit college that misled students about its accreditation status while still accepting tuition payments. We have multiple active lawsuits related to the Education Department’s lax oversight of the for-profit higher education industry, as well as an active FOIA request for the communications of the agency official, former lobbyist Diane Auer Jones, who had been in contact with the company about its accreditation status.