News Roundup: Presidential War Powers and New Impeachment Documents

It’s been a week since the drone strike that killed Iran’s Maj. Gen Qasem Soleimani, but the justifications provided by the administration have still not satisfied those concerned about the Trump administration’s posture toward Iran — including members of Congress.

On Thursday, the House approved a war powers resolution to limit President Donald Trump’s ability to take military action against Iran without Congress’s approval. The vote occurred the day after a closed-door briefing that left Sen. Mike Lee of Utah indignant, with him calling the briefing “insulting and demeaning.” Questions remain not just about whether Soleimani did represent an “imminent” threat, as officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo initially said, but also whether the White House considered itself to have legal justification for striking Iran again.

That has been a question for months, especially after the administration’s moves last spring to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization. American Oversight filed Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover whether the administration had been laying the legal groundwork for initiating military action under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), and documents we recently obtained in response to that request reveal that members of Congress were asking the administration the same questions.

The records show a number of internal emails about how to answer Congress’s questions, but even the finalized responses are redacted. In a letter to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel, the State Department said that “the Administration has not, to date, interpreted either AUMF as authorizing military force against Iran, except as may be necessary to defend U.S. or partner forces … .”

Earlier this week, American Oversight filed additional FOIA requests for State and Defense Department communications, including external emails, regarding the strike that killed Soleimani as well as for legal analyses or congressional notifications about the strike. You can read more about our investigation of the Trump administration’s posture toward Iran here.

While a lot has happened in just the first week of 2020, the specter of war has not distracted American Oversight from its numerous other investigations — including, namely, the release of new Ukraine-related documents this week. You can read more about our impeachment investigation below, as well as everything else we’ve been working on.

New Impeachment Docs: On Wednesday, the State Department released a second set of documents in our lawsuit for Ukraine-related communications. The first set, released back in November, revealed contacts between Pompeo and Rudy Giuliani (with the aid of the White House) in the spring of 2019; these new documents cover the time period when the administration was actively withholding aid to Ukraine, and notably do not contain any record of Pompeo-Giuliani calls — even though Giuliani said publicly that he had spoken with Pompeo in September. The release does, however, contain letters between former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch’s counsel and Undersecretary of State Brian Bulatao about the White House directive to not comply with the House’s impeachment inquiry. (Yovanovitch, of course, did testify.) You can read more about that exchange here.

More Docs to Come Friday: We’re expecting another set of documents from a separate State Department lawsuit today, this one for the calendars of former Ukraine special representative Kurt Volker. Be sure to check www.americanoversight.org for updates — we’ll be posting the documents as soon as we receive them, along with updates on what we find as we review.

Subpoena John Bolton: Former National Security Adviser John Bolton had refused to testify in the House’s impeachment inquiry, but earlier this week Bolton said that he was willing to do so during the Senate trial should he receive a subpoena. Given his stated plans to hold what will amount to a sham trial, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell might not take Bolton up on that offer. But House leaders should. As Molly Claflin, American Oversight’s chief oversight counsel, writes at Slate, “Witnesses with relevant evidence should not get to select how and in front of which friendly tribunal they share evidence.” Read more from Claflin here on why the House should prepare to subpoena Bolton.

OMB-Defense Ukraine Emails Revealed: Back in December, the administration released a set of documents to the Center for Public Integrity showing that aid to Ukraine was frozen less than two hours after Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. Last week, Just Security obtained the emails without the redactions, revealing that the order to freeze the aid came directly from the president — information that would have otherwise remained hidden underneath what we can now see are questionable redactions. Read more from American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers on how even with FOIA’s successes in forcing the release of Ukraine records, the Trump administration still has plenty of opportunities to obstruct.

Remember Scott Pruitt?: We’re sure you couldn’t forget the former EPA administrator with the habit of using taxpayer money for luxury travel and outrageous office upgrades. You might even remember the Washington Post story about how he traded in his official car for a larger, fancier SUV. Well, American Oversight has uncovered records indicating that at one point, Pruitt had the use of not one, but three vehicles. You can read more about the “saga of the Suburban” here.

New State Department Legal Adviser: C.J. Mahoney, the deputy U.S. trade representative, has been named as the State Department’s legal adviser, a role that has, of course, taken on increased political significance. We filed a FOIA request with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative for his communications with various outside groups and individuals, as well as information about any meetings he had with them.

Trump’s Efforts on Behalf of Turkish Bank: Over the past year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan orchestrated a pressure campaign aimed at avoiding criminal charges for the state-owned Halkbank. And the campaign may have worked on Trump — he reportedly asked then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to convince the Justice Department to drop its investigation of the bank’s financial laundering schemes, and told Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Attorney General William Barr to speak with Erdogan on the matter. Halkbank has since been charged, but questions remain about the timing of those charges and about whether the investigation of Halkbank was influenced by external entities or Trump’s personal interests. We’re investigating.

For-Profit Colleges: Pete Hegseth, the Fox News personality who urged Trump to pardon U.S. service members charged with war crimes and who previously served as the executive director of the Koch-funded Concerned Veterans for America, recently spoke at a meeting of the Career Education Colleges and University, a for-profit college trade group. During his speech, Hegseth vowed to use his relationship with Trump to defend the “90/10 loophole” that allows for-profit schools to avoid a limit on how much of their revenue can come from federal education funds. We filed a FOIA request with the Education Department for communications between agency officials and outside individuals or groups, including Hegseth. And in our continuing investigation of CVA’s influence at the Department of Veterans Affairs, we filed a request for agency officials’ communications with Hegseth or CVA representatives.

Giuliani and the Ambassador to Hungary: U.S. Ambassador to Hungary David Cornstein admitted in October that he had used personal devices to exchange text messages with Hungarian officials, including with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, making him the latest Trump administration official to have not learned a major lesson of the 2016 presidential campaign. Cornstein also has a close relationship with Rudy Giuliani, even having had dinner with him in Budapest during Giuliani’s December trip to Hungary. We filed FOIA requests with the State Department for Cornstein’s official communications sent using non-government accounts, as well as for his communications with Giuliani.

State Accountability Project: During a winter meeting of Florida elections officials, the state’s elections director said that there were significant delays in Florida’s entry into the Electronic Registration Information Center, a system that could identify millions of eligible voters who are not registered. We filed a request with the Florida Department of State for communications about the system, and have also asked a number of Florida county elections officials for their communications with members of the Restoration of Voting Rights Task Force who were appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year. Another request to the Florida governor’s office asked for DeSantis’s communications with members of the Trump family or with the president’s re-election campaign.

Short-Term Insurance: In October 2017, Trump issued an executive order directing the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Treasury to expand the availability of short-term, limited-duration insurance. Under the Obama administration, such plans — intended to be a temporary fix for people with a short break in coverage, and do not have to comply with various provisions of the Affordable Care Act — had been limited to a maximum of three months. The new rule, proposed in February 2018 and made final that August, extended that period to a year. Critics have expressed concerns that it leaves vulnerable Americans with substandard coverage, and we filed FOIA requests to learn whether health-care industry interests are influencing federal policy. (See also HHS Secretary Alex Azar’s calendars, which show his meeting with a number of conservative groups the day of the rule’s February 2018 rollout.)

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