News Roundup: “Remain in Mexico,” New Lawsuits, and Trump’s Friend Tom Barrack

Documents that American Oversight has uncovered show that some Department of Homeland Security officials had wanted to ask asylum-seekers whether they would be afraid for their safety if they were to be sent back to Mexico — but the question was scrapped before the new Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) policy was finalized.

Buzzfeed News reported on the documents and the administration’s decision to cut the question, which could have allowed some asylum-seekers to avoid having to wait in Mexico. From Buzzfeed:

“The documents are the first public records to show some within the Department of Homeland Security had wanted to actively ask asylum-seekers whether they had fear of being returned to Mexico, evidence that immigration advocates say bolsters their arguments that the controversial program lacks necessary safeguards.”

The Trump administration’s MPP policy, also referred to as “Remain in Mexico,” requires migrants to remain in Mexico while their asylum requests are processed. We filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests for more information about the policy’s implementation and development. 

According to the documents, the initial plan had been to ask migrants, “Do you have a fear of being returned or removed to another country? If so, to which countries do you fear return or removal?” The documents show some U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service officials pushing back, with one writing, “Can you make sure it has the presumption built in rather than CBP [Customs and Border Protection] proactively asking the two questions?”

Buzzfeed’s reporting includes reactions from immigration experts as well as more details contained in the documents — you can read more here.

Here’s a run-through of what else we’ve discovered this week and of what we’re investigating:

Tom Barrack’s Meeting with Middle East Diplomats: Treasury Department calendars obtained by American Oversight contain an entry for a June 2017 dinner with a guest list that included Tom Barrack, a longtime personal friend of President Donald Trump, and dignitaries and finance officials from Middle Eastern countries. Since the beginning of the Trump administration, Barrack has pushed for stronger ties between the White House and Saudi Arabia, and this week Bloomberg reported on Barrack’s large investment with the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund. Barrack had also been a proponent of the plan to sell U.S. nuclear technology to the Saudis.

About Those Saudi Nuclear Sales Efforts: A recent New York Times article reported that Eric Branstad, the former senior White House adviser to the Commerce Department, may have helped former Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates secure an endorsement for a defense contractor. The two had both served on Trump’s inaugural committee (with Barrack), and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington reported in May on Branstad’s extensive communications with Gates, including emails about the efforts to share nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia. We’re asking Commerce for records of Branstad’s communications about the Saudi nuclear plan or with people reportedly involved in the efforts.

More on Barrack: A new report from the House Committee on Oversight and Reform describes Barrack’s efforts in supporting the nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia and in landing an administration position. “The president likes to claim he puts ‘America First’ but it’s clear the public interest took a backseat to geopolitical vulture capitalism,” said American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers. “It’s time for the administration to cough up documents to Congress. If it has evidence to rebut this apparent corruption, it owes it to the American people.” 

New Lawsuits: American Oversight filed two new lawsuits this week. We’re suing the Justice Department to find out what actions officials took — or failed to take  — to mitigate the inhumane conditions during a prolonged power and heat outage at the Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center this past winter. And our lawsuit against the State Department is seeking records related to our investigation of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner reportedly having invited Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin along on trips so they could use military aircraft.

Jared’s Middle East Trips: White House Senior Adviser Kushner has taken multiple trips to the Middle East this year, bringing along Jason Greenblatt, the president’s Middle East envoy, and Brian Hook, the special representative for Iran from the State Department. But few details about the trips have emerged. We filed a FOIA request with the State Department for Hook’s communications with Kushner (including those sent over Kushner’s personal email and WhatsApp).

“Elijah Cummings is not taking no for an answer”: On Friday, Trump made light of a reported burglary at the Baltimore home of House Oversight Committee Chair Elijah Cummings. Trump’s tweet came after having spent a weekend attacking the congressman and disparaging the city of Baltimore. American Oversight’s chief oversight counsel Molly Claflin told Time that the president’s focus on the committee chair likely comes from his recognition that Cummings “is probably the single-most dangerous person to Trump.”

Legal Defense Funds for Trump Allies: A legal defense fund created by Trump supporters had refused to disclose who it has been helping, but documents reported on by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the Daily Beast revealed that the fund had paid legal bills for White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller, Kushner aide Avi Berkowitz, and White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt had also used a legal defense fund while he fought numerous ethics investigations, receiving $50,000 from a billionaire Republican donor whose companies had numerous facilities subject to EPA inspection. There is currently no federal regulation specifically governing executive branch officials’ use of legal defense funds — we’ve called on the Office of Government Ethics to change that, and to require disclosure of beneficiaries and donors.

McConnell’s Brother-in-Law: This spring, the Senate confirmed Trump’s nominee for director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, Gordon Hartogensis. Hartogensis — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s brother-in-law — reportedly has no prior experience managing pensions, so we’re asking for his resume as well as his security and ethics forms to find out more about what sort of experience he does have.

Gubernatorial Spending: Two weeks ago, we filed a public records request to find out whether Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had offered the Trump Organization tax breaks or other incentives for it to build in Palm Beach. This week, we’re asking the governors’ offices in Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas for records of spending at Trump properties across the country.