News Roundup: Sidelining Safety and Science

As the number of new Covid-19 cases continues to break daily records, and as the death toll from the pandemic mounts, the disconnect between the Trump administration’s posture and the reality on the ground — and the advice of health experts and scientists — has reached a disturbing degree.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to weaken safety recommendations for reopening schools in the fall. Dismissing health concerns and calling the guidelines “very tough & expensive,” Trump even threatened to cut off funding for schools that don’t reopen (he does not have that authority). According to some estimates, as much as $200 billion is needed to provide schools with the capability to reopen safely (the coronavirus relief package only provides $13.5 billion), but Trump did not say he would push for that additional funding. Instead, later that day, the White House announced that the CDC would be issuing new guidelines next week.

With political self-interest driving the president’s decisions more than concern for the safety of Americans, the divide between the administration and the CDC’s health experts is growing, as the Washington Post reported on Thursday. That divide is sidelining science and “undermining the authority of one of the world’s premier public health agencies.”

The consequences of this vacuum of strong and trustworthy federal leadership is obvious. States that seemingly succumbed to Trump’s impatient pressure and “reopened” too soon are now seeing massive spikes in their numbers of cases. And according to a new Senate report, state and local officials remain frustrated and confused about the state of testing for the coronavirus, and concerned about their ability to prepare for the fall. Months into the crisis and during the height of summer, testing capacity shortages and long lines at testing centers remain.

Trump’s abdication of federal responsibility toward states has been a feature of his administration’s pandemic response for months, with an early indication of his stance coming on March 16, when he told governors in need of more medical equipment like ventilators to “try getting it yourselves.”

American Oversight has been investigating the administration’s ongoing testing failures as well as its coordination (or lack thereof) with states, including whether it has been disfavoring states run by leaders, such as Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who have been critical of the federal response. This week, we published records that include a heated email exchange from March between White House official Douglas Hoelscher and Anne Caprara, Pritzker’s chief of staff. The emails — in which Caprara faulted the White House for taking umbrage at Pritzker’s criticism while failing both to warn states about the president’s sudden travel restrictions and to provide help with test kit shortages — are a window into the frustrations state officials have had with the White House’s inadequate response.

At a House Homeland Security Committee hearing this week, Pritzker testified that the government’s “muddled response” forced states to compete in a “sick Hunger Games game show” for personal protective equipment and medical supplies. You can learn about our investigation into testing supply failures here, and read more about the Caprara and Hoelscher  emails here.

Here’s what else has been going on this week:

Supreme Court Rejects Trump’s ‘Absolute Immunity’ Claims: On Thursday, the Supreme Court issued its much-anticipated decisions in two cases on subpoenas for Trump’s tax returns. In one case, the justices ruled that Trump does not have immunity from a New York prosecutor’s subpoena for records from the president’s private accounting firm; in the other, which involved congressional subpoenas for the records, the justices sent the case back to lower courts for further consideration.

While both decisions give Trump the benefit of additional delay in the release of the records (almost certainly till after the November election) they are an important rejection of Trump’s argument that being the president gave him “absolute immunity” from criminal investigations and a reminder that no one, including the president, is above the law.

How Coronavirus Relief Loans Went to Lobbying Shops and Political Firms: The list of recipients of the Paycheck Protection Program’s small-business loans, finally released by the administration on Monday, didn’t just include restaurants and doctors’ offices. A business entity owned by the family of Jared Kushner received hundreds of thousands of dollars, as did top law firms and lobbying shops. On Tuesday, the New York Times’ Ken Vogel detailed how Washington’s “permanent political class” was also a big beneficiary of the taxpayer-funded loan program. “Every lobbying firm, political consultant and huge corporation that received a loan is a reminder that this program was administered to cater to the well-connected and powerful over small businesses,” said Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director, in Vogel’s story.

Trump Tulsa Rally ‘Likely’ Source of Surge in Virus Cases: On Wednesday, the Associated Press reported that the president’s June 20 rally in Tulsa, Okla., had “likely contributed” to a spike in cases there. Last week, we published records showing that Tulsa health officials had estimated the rally would directly lead to 2 to 9 deaths

Coronavirus Data from Cook County Jail in Illinois: Cook County Jail has been a top U.S. hot spot for Covid-19, with multiple deaths from the outbreak within its walls. We obtained records on the number of detainees who had been tested, revealing a 70 percent positive test rate on April 21. View the records here.

‘Separated: An American Tragedy’: Jacob Soboroff’s new book, Separated: An American Tragedy, released this week, details the Trump administration’s cruel and poorly coordinated family-separation policy. In the book, Soboroff cites records we obtained from the Department of Homeland Security, showing emails from then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen regarding a Congolese woman who was separated from her 7-year-old child while seeking asylum, and emails from Kevin McAleenan, then the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, about a Central American man separated from his 1-year-old son.

Florida Ballot Scans: Florida recently passed a bill that allows supervisors of elections to use digital imaging software to retain images of ballots for use in vote recounts. But right now, only one vendor provides those services. That company, Clear Ballot, hired a lobbyist from the Trump-connected firm Ballard Partners, and American Oversight obtained emails between the lobbyist and the office of the bill’s sponsor, raising concerns about relying on just one company to ensure election integrity. Read more about those records, and the need for accurate ballot scans, in the Miami Herald.

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Department of Justice, Department of State
April 30, 2019

American Oversight Sues HUD for Communications Related to Sale of Trump-Tied Housing Complex

Department of Housing and Urban Development
April 17, 2019

Why Congress — and the American People — Deserve to See Trump’s Tax Returns

Congress, Department of the Treasury, Internal Revenue Service, White House
April 12, 2019

News Roundup: DeVos, Mnuchin, Barr Testify in Congress

Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Congress, Council on Environmental Quality, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Environmental Protection Agency
April 2, 2019

Federal Judge Rejects Administration’s Argument for Withholding Communications with Congress about ACA Sabotage

Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Management and Budget
March 25, 2019

The Corruption Continues: Mueller Has Finished His Work. American Oversight Has Not.

March 13, 2019

Two Years of American Oversight

March 8, 2019

News Roundup: Lawsuits Against Departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services

March 8, 2019

Watchdogs Sue HHS Following Women’s Health Website Overhaul

Department of Health and Human Services
March 4, 2019

FBI Headquarters Investigation: Agencies Refusing to Search for Records of Trump Interference to Protect Hotel

March 1, 2019

HHS Secretary Azar Calendars Show Multiple Meetings with Conservative Health-Care Groups

Department of Health and Human Services
February 21, 2019

New Lawsuit Seeks HHS Communications with Anti-Abortion Groups

Department of Health and Human Services
February 5, 2019

Lawsuit: Why Did Government-Run Site Attached to Trump Hotel Stay Open During the Shutdown?

General Services Administration, National Park Service, Office of Management and Budget
January 3, 2019

Government Site Attached to Trump Hotel Stays Open Despite Shutdown and We Want to Know Why

November 19, 2018

Ivanka Trump Email Investigation Sparked by American Oversight FOIAs

Department of Commerce, Department of Education, Department of Labor, Department of the Treasury, Small Business Administration
November 8, 2018

American Oversight Sues State Department for Trump Organization, Kushner Companies Records

Department of State
October 23, 2018

New Lawsuit Seeks Details of White House, Trump Organization Involvement in FBI Headquarters Decision

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget
May 3, 2018

Court Rules in Favor of American Oversight in Trump Hotel Lawsuit

General Services Administration
March 9, 2018

American Oversight Sues HHS and CMS for Verma Ethics Records

Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Department of Health and Human Services
December 17, 2017

Trump Transition GSA Emails and Memorandum of Understanding

General Services Administration
December 11, 2017

State Department Emails Show How Embassy Websites Promoted Mar-a-Lago

Department of State
November 2, 2017

FOIA In Action: Helping Journalists Expose Questionable Behavior By Trump’s Appointees

Department of Education, Department of Labor, Small Business Administration
October 24, 2017

Texts Show SBA Staff Tried to “Crop the Opulence” from Trump Hotel Event

Small Business Administration
October 17, 2017

Health Care Lawsuit: Fighting for Transparency

Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Management and Budget
September 15, 2017

Congress Enters Legal Fight to Block Release of Obamacare Repeal Emails

Congress, Department of Health and Human Services
September 13, 2017

“News to Me!” – Inside the Health Care Emails

Office of Management and Budget
September 7, 2017

Third Set of Health Care Emails Again Shows Trump Administration Effort to Hide Negotiations

Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Management and Budget
August 4, 2017

Ethics 101: Twitter Ads Follow President Trump to Bedminster, NJ

August 2, 2017

New Health Care Documents Show Effort to Hide Details of Negotiations

Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Management and Budget
July 24, 2017

American Oversight Launches “Defund Trump” Investigation

Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Council on Environmental Quality, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
July 20, 2017

American Oversight Sues HHS and OMB For Secret Trump Letter Outlining Plan to Weaken Obamacare

Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Management and Budget, White House
June 28, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Sues GSA for Trump International Hotel Lease Records

General Services Administration
May 4, 2017

Watchdog Files Lawsuit, Seeks Injunction for HHS, OMB Health Care Negotiation Record

Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Management and Budget
May 3, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Calls for Investigation into Pattern of Promoting Trump Family Ventures on Government Websites

Department of State
April 25, 2017

American Oversight Files IG Complaint over State Department Promotion of Mar-A-Lago

Department of State
March 29, 2017

Call for GSA Inspector General to Review Trump Hotel Lease Decision

General Services Administration
March 23, 2017

American Oversight Demands Release of Secret Health Care Negotiations

Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Management and Budget