The uncertainty and fear surrounding the coronavirus have laid bare the deadly consequences of President Donald Trump’s preferred method of leadership, summed up as a demand for obsequious loyalty and a refusal to take responsibility for mistakes. It’s been more than a month since the first confirmed case in the United States, but the administration’s response has only revealed inefficiency and intensified concerns.
A government without the trust of its people cannot safely guide the public through the outbreak of a rapidly spreading infectious disease. And the president’s series of false statements, the scarcity of testing, and the administration’s warping of its response into a public-relations operation are quickly eroding that trust. This week, American Oversight opened its investigation of the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, filing dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests to shed light on how the government has been preparing for the potentially serious crisis.
Trump had canceled a Friday trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, but abruptly rescheduled the trip — a change that according to Politico not even Vice President Mike Pence, who is in charge of the administration’s coronavirus response, was initially aware of. (What was apparently never off the table was Trump’s planned three-day weekend trip to his Mar-a-Lago resort.) Trump told reporters that the about-face was because of a suspected case at CDC that turned out to be negative, which was not the reason the White House had earlier given for the cancellation.
This came after a week of the president making misleading or false statements about the severity of the disease, Covid-19. He compared it to the common flu, contested the World Health Organization’s mortality rate estimate, and said that people feeling sick could still go to work, contrary to the advice of health experts to stay at home. He attended a campaign rally and a Fox News town hall, bragging about the administration’s “highest poll numbers of anybody.”
Meanwhile, the administration appears eager to paint the same rosy picture as the president. On Friday, Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow insisted that the virus was largely “contained” despite the increasing evidence of community spread. Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned military commanders last week not to make any decisions related to the coronavirus that would run contrary to Trump’s messaging. Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) told the Washington Post that Pence’s office had been dictating how the agency should be communicating with the public, and last week, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney sent a government-wide email saying that all coronavirus-related communications had to go through Pence’s press secretary, Katie Miller. Last weekend, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was told to cancel five talk show appearances.
Despite the attempted stranglehold on messaging, troubling news continues to trickle out. An analysis by the Atlantic found that as of Friday morning fewer than 2,000 people had been tested in the U.S. for the coronavirus, and that White House promises of increased testing capacity have fallen far short: “The figures we gathered suggest that the American response to the coronavirus … has been shockingly sluggish, especially compared with that of other developed countries.” The lack of data available on the nation’s testing capacity — which had already been severely delayed — hinders the ability of officials to adequately respond to the disease. Health-care workers are scrambling and nurses aren’t receiving proper resources. Meanwhile, a number of people have criticized a questionable lack of screening of travelers entering the U.S. after visiting high-risk countries, even as the president reportedly toyed with the idea of closing the southern border, likely for his own political reasons.
American Oversight filed FOIA requests for information reflecting the number of individuals who have been tested, as well as for any directives, guidance, or communications related to testing. And earlier this week, we filed requests for records pertaining to public communications about coronavirus. More than three years have given us ample indications of the danger of Trump’s autocratic tendencies, and of the importance of keeping the spotlight on our government. Read on:
‘Final Decision Rests with POTUS’: That’s what a senior career Pentagon official said regarding the military aid to Ukraine, which Trump withheld last summer in an effort to coerce the country to announce an investigation into Joe Biden. That email — which also said that former National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretaries Mark Esper and Mike Pompeo supported releasing the aid — was released to us in a 238-page set of Defense Department records that directly contradict the White House budget office’s stated rationale for having held up the aid. The evidence of Trump’s corruption grows bigger every week.
Lebanon Foreign Aid Freeze: Last summer, the Trump administration froze more than $200 million in congressionally approved military and economic aid to Lebanon with little explanation as to why. The New York Times later reported that the hold was requested by the White House, despite support from both the State Department and Pentagon officials for releasing the aid. (Sound familiar?) In testimony from the impeachment inquiry, senior officials speculated about whether “this is a new normal on assistance.” We filed FOIA requests to multiple agencies for records to shed light on the decision to withhold aid to Lebanon, including interagency meeting records and the communications of key officials at the State Department, the Office of Management and Budget, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Trump Properties Spending: Speaking of mounting evidence of corruption — this week, the Washington Post reported that the president’s company charged taxpayers $157,000 more than was previously known, having billed the Secret Service for rooms at higher rates than the company claimed. The receipts, obtained by Public Citizen, bring the total of Secret Service spending at Trump properties to more than $628,000.
Braithwaite and Cambridge Analytica: In January, CBS News reported that Kenneth Braithwaite, ambassador to Norway and nominee for secretary of the Navy, worked with political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica under a one-year contract that began in November 2016 — a relationship he failed to disclose on his ethics forms, which were obtained by American Oversight. Then last month, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington noticed discrepancies in Braithwaite’s financial reports on payments from his former employer, the health-care company Vizient Inc. We filed requests for Braithwaite’s communications with Cambridge Analytica and Vizient Inc.
Undermining the Affordable Care Act: We’ve been investigating administration efforts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, and this week published a 2017 script from an apparently unreleased HHS video criticizing the health-care law. We also sent new requests to the Justice Department and HHS for records reflecting communications with the Cato Institute’s Michael Cannon, a prominent ACA opponent, as well as for records about HHS’s expenditures on advertising for recent enrollment periods.
Pompeo’s Contacts with Sebastian Gorka: During Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 2019 visit to Italy, his office permitted Sebastian Gorka — the far-right host of the radio show America First with Sebastian Gorka and former senior adviser to the president — to join as a member of the press pool. We’re asking for Pompeo’s ethics documents and for his communications with Gorka.
Investigations into War Crimes in Afghanistan: On Thursday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized an investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan — including those potentially committed by American forces. The court’s previous ruling to reject the inquiry came after public opposition from the Trump administration, which included threatening the ICC with sanctions and revoking the U.S. visa of Fatou Bensouda, the ICC prosecutor who proposed the investigation. Although the U.S. did not send official representatives to a December hearing on the request for the inquiry, the president’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow was there on behalf of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice. We filed FOIA requests to the State Department for any communications with or about Sekulow.
BLM Relocation Plan: Last November, more than 300 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employees received a letter informing them they had 30 days to decide whether to move with the agency to Colorado, and 90 days to relocate if they decided to do so. Those who refused would lose their jobs. In December, it was reported that few employees had decided to make the move across the county. We filed FOIA requests to learn more about the relocation plan and its impact on staffing at the agency, including financial justifications for the move, any analysis or memos concerning the plan, and records reflecting how many employees were asked to relocate and how many chose to do so.
State Accountability Project: Super Tuesday is behind us, the 2020 election draws nearer, and we continue to investigate voting infrastructure and protections across the country with our State Accountability Project. This week, we asked Georgia’s secretary of state for records concerning increased accessibility measures for voters with disabilities and senior citizens. We also filed records requests to two counties in Georgia for information about the voting process for detainees held at two different detention centers. In Texas, we asked multiple counties and the secretary of state for documents or communications on the performance of the ES&S iVotronic voting machine — an older, paperless voting machine model that has reportedly changed voters’ ballots in previous elections.
Georgia Driver’s Licenses: In 2019, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) began an inquiry into discrimination against Puerto Rican driver’s license applicants following one man’s federal lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Driver Services (DDS) for seizing his documentation and falsely claiming he provided fraudulent identification. Last month, DDS agreed to lessen restrictions for license applicants who come from Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories so they have the same requirements as other U.S. citizens. We filed records requests for the GBI’s final investigation report and for records about the policy change.
Halkbank: In October 2019, the Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank was charged by a U.S. federal court for a sanction-evasion scheme. In the lead-up to the charges, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly lobbied Trump aggressively in an effort to avoid any prosecution. According to news reports, Trump sent Attorney General William Barr to block the indictment and assist Erdogan’s efforts. Last month, we started investigating the Trump administration’s interference in the federal prosecution against Halkbank, and now we’re asking the Department of Justice for communications of senior officials that reference the incident, including communications with the White House.
Part of Investigation: