News Roundup: Shutdown Ends Before Hearings Begin

As the country’s longest government shutdown finally comes to a (perhaps temporary) end and as the Mueller investigation issues its latest indictment, preparations for congressional hearings continue to move forward. The House Oversight Committee added to its ranks progressive freshman Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, and plans to hold its first hearing next Tuesday on the price of prescription drugs.

Earlier this week, House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler sent a letter to Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who is scheduled to appear before the committee on February 8, providing Whitaker in advance with a number of the questions the committee plans to ask him regarding his communications with the White House. Among them are questions about Whitaker’s decision not to recuse himself from the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference, and his possible role in a statement issued by the special counsel’s office disputing a recent BuzzFeed report. The report stated that federal prosecutors have evidence that Trump directed his attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project.

Cohen was scheduled to appear before the Oversight Committee on February 7, but on Wednesday Cohen’s lawyer announced that the appearance would be postponed “due to ongoing threats against his family from President Trump and Mr. [Rudy] Giuliani.” Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings reportedly plans to subpoena Cohen to testify, but the Senate Intelligence Committee beat him to it, issuing its own subpoena on Thursday.

Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary, Alex Azar, has refused Democrats’ request to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. A 2018 report from the Department of Homeland Security indicated that Azar had misled Congress about the existence of a database for reuniting separated children with their parents. In November, American Oversight submitted a FOIA request for HHS communications regarding any such database or “matching table” to find out whether Azar had lied about the policy.

The shutdown over Trump’s empty promise of a border wall has taken up much of the oxygen in the nation’s capital, but its conclusion could provide more space for the many planned congressional investigations of the Trump administration. And of course, American Oversight has been continuing its own investigations of misconduct — here’s what else we’ve been working on this week:

  • After questioning in early January whether “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” ideas should be considered offensive, Rep. Steve King was removed from his committee assignments by party leaders. The Iowa Republican has long been known to have hardline views on immigration and for making frequent racist remarks, and American Oversight filed FOIAs to multiple federal offices to determine whether King’s views — which until last week leaders had often let slide — influenced the Trump administration’s immigration policy. 
  • Despite the documented rise in violent right-wing domestic terrorism, the Trump administration has taken steps to weaken the task force established in 2016 to address such violence, and has rescinded grants for projects dedicated to reducing violent radicalism. American Oversight submitted multiple FOIA requests to DHS and the Department of Justice for records about the funding of these programs as well as internal reports. 
  • In mid-January, new details came to light about the lavish spending involved in Trump’s 2017 inauguration festivities. At least four people involved in raising the money for the party now hold influential positions at the Treasury Department — Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Chief of Staff Eli Miller, Deputy Chief of Staff Alden Wood, and White House Liaison J. Baylor Myers. We’re asking for any communications these four officials had with major Trump donors and Trump-supporting organizations to find out what level of access they’ve had to Treasury officials. 
  • The shutdown hasn’t been the only thing the president and his administration have taken heat for since December. Trump’s sudden announcement that he would be withdrawing troops from Syria was met with major criticism and even the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. The extent of senior officials’ involvement in that surprise decision is still unknown, and American Oversight submitted FOIA requests to the departments of Defense and State to find out more.
  • With the news of Trump adviser and 2016 campaign official Roger Stone’s arrest in connection with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and Trump’s caving on the government shutdown, you might have missed the news from NBC that the application of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, for top-secret clearance was “rejected by two career White House security specialists after an FBI background check raised concerns about potential foreign influence on him,” before that rejection was overruled. The House Oversight Committee has indicated that it plans to investigate that process. In 2018, after reports that Kushner had worked without full clearance and had made several changes to his security clearance form, we asked for communications about those changes.