When President Donald Trump’s attacks on the U.S. Postal Service first began causing a stir in 2018 — calling for the centuries-old agency to be privatized — his insistence on viewing it as a business rather than an essential government service seemed to be yet another indication of his administration’s penchant for clearing the way for private industry to reap big rewards.
But the past few months of the coronavirus pandemic have also revealed that Trump’s antagonistic stance toward the overwhelmingly well-liked Postal Service not only endangers the delivery of mail; it also threatens to undermine confidence in the November 2020 election and to limit many Americans’ right to vote as well.
The White House stepped up its attacks on the post office in the spring, when the president threatened to veto the coronavirus relief bill if it contained money for the financially struggling agency, and Trump directed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to withhold the $10 billion loan approved by Congress. (It wasn’t until this week that USPS and the Treasury reached an agreement on the terms of the loan.) And as primary elections were taking place in states across the country, Trump and his allies began making alarmist and unfounded claims about the dangers of voter fraud due to the increased use of absentee voting.
On Wednesday, Vice reported on the slashing of post office hours at locations across the country, and the plan (since walked back because of likely violations of federal law) to close offices for good with just a few weeks’ notice. Those moves are the latest in a troubling line of changes undertaken under new Postmaster Louis DeJoy, a major Trump donor who was appointed in May. Besides the obvious questions about how a top donor earned his office, DeJoy’s previous job as head of the warehouse and distribution company New Breed Logistics also raised eyebrows because of its history of anti-union practices and workplace violations, as reported on by the Intercept.
In early July, the Washington Post reported on memos detailing significant operational changes that could seriously hinder mail delivery and undermine the service’s competitiveness with private companies. Among the measures outlined by DeJoy was the instruction to leave mail at distribution centers if it would delay letter carriers getting to their routes. Americans across the country have already noticed unusual delays in the delivery of packages and letters.
It’s obvious what these self-inflicted setbacks mean for holding an election that will rely more on the postal service than ever before. And the new developments have many voting-rights advocates worried, especially in states that have not expanded their capacity for mail-in voting, or have constricted windows for turning in ballots that are based on assumed timely delivery.
American Oversight is investigating whether and to what extent the White House is interfering in the postal service’s mission to not let “snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” hamper its operations — either to lend a hand to private industry or to aid in the president’s reelection efforts by undermining trust in the voting process. We filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in June after the agency failed to respond to requests seeking Trump administration communications or directives related to vote-by-mail operations as well as records regarding the impact of the pandemic on USPS functions.
Here’s what else has been going on this week:
Senate Coronavirus Bill Includes $1.75 Billion for FBI Project Near Trump Hotel: Why a pandemic relief bill would include nearly $2 billion for the rebuilding of the FBI’s downtown D.C. headquarters was a question raised this week by a reporter in a news conference with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. That insertion was “insisted” on by the White House, leading to additional speculation about the president’s interest in the construction project.
Here’s the backstory: For more than a decade, the FBI had sought congressional funding to move its headquarters from the deteriorating J. Edgar Hoover Building to the suburbs. In 2017, the Trump administration abruptly scrapped the search for a new location, then announced in early 2018 that the new (and costlier) plan was to rebuild at its current location, which happens to sit one block from the Trump International Hotel. Read the latest in our investigation into whether this about-face was a result of an effort to ensure prime real estate near Trump’s hotel remained free of competition.
New EDNY Prosecutor’s Involvement in Investigation into Mueller Probe: This week, the New York Times reported on the scrutiny facing Seth DuCharme, the Justice Department official whom Attorney General William Barr recently installed as the new U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. In assuming the role, DuCharme switched places with Richard P. Donoghue, who moved from EDNY to the Justice Department.
The scrutiny is not without reason: Donoghue had been tasked by Barr with overseeing all Ukraine-related investigations. Additionally, documents uncovered by American Oversight, as mentioned in the Times, revealed that DuCharme was closely involved in the controversial investigation into the origins of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian election interference. Leading that investigation-of-an-investigation is U.S. Attorney John Durham, who was appointed by Barr.
Those previously reported documents show extensive contact between Barr and Durham around the time of the Mueller report’s release, and newly released records also include an email from DuCharme to Durham in which DuCharme said that Barr had told him to “provide you with my support and assistance.”
Barr Testifies Before House Judiciary Committee: Barr appeared before lawmakers on Tuesday to defend his handling of the aggressive response to nationwide protests and his department’s unprecedented interventions into criminal cases that involve associates of the president. During the hearing, Barr refused to commit to waiting until after the election to release any findings from Durham’s investigation, raising alarm over whether a well-timed announcement could be used to help Trump’s reelection efforts.
Operation Legend Expands to Swing States: On Wednesday, the Trump administration said that it would finally be withdrawing federal officers from Portland, Ore., where their presence fueled protests and their violent response to demonstrations drew widespread condemnation.
But that isn’t the end of the president’s attempted federal occupation of American cities. That same day, the Justice Department announced that it would be bringing “Operation Legend” — the deployment of federal law enforcement to cities across the country to “fight violent crime,” whether local officials wanted them or not — to Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee, all cities in key swing states. Many have decried the operation as a political stunt meant to distract from the mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic and the president’s low poll numbers.
How the Education Department Tried to Help a For-Profit College Chain That Lied to Students: The Washington Post reported this week on documents uncovered through FOIA litigation by American Oversight and the watchdog group Student Defense that show more than 100 texts between Education Department official Diane Auer Jones — a former lobbyist for for-profit colleges — and executives from Dream Center, the company that continued to accept tuition payments for months in 2018 without telling students their schools had lost accreditation.
The texts, along with other documents and recent revelations, undermine many of the Education Department’s claims about the extent of its work on behalf of the company, including Jones’ representations of her contacts with Dream Center and of when she learned about the accreditation issue. Read more here about the latest exposure of industry’ influence at Secretary Betsy DeVos’ agency.
Part of Investigation: