Dangerous testing shortages and a focus on messaging strategy over public health — the Trump administration’s early mismanagement of the novel coronavirus outbreak has put thousands of lives in danger.
American Oversight has been investigating the government’s response, filing dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests to shed light on industry opportunism, on the White House’s political spin, and on early administration early decisions that hindered the rollout of testing kits, of which there is still a worrisome shortage. Here’s what we’re looking into:
The news is unfolding at a rapid pace. More states are urging their residents to stay at home as the number of confirmed cases rises. Just yesterday, we learned that Richard Burr, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sold off up $1.7 million of his stocks in February, at a time when his office was receiving regular briefings on coronavirus — and the administration and its supporters in Congress, including Burr, were downplaying the threat in public statements. As more information comes out, American Oversight will continue to fight for accountability and transparency. You can read more details of our investigation here, which includes more background and details about our requests.
Sunshine Week: It’s Sunshine Week, a celebration of the importance of government transparency and the Freedom of Information Act. And right now, it’s clearer than ever the importance of providing the public insight into the government’s operations. Here’s why agencies need to allocate more resources to meet their FOIA obligations — not complain about requesters turning to the courts when they receive no response.
Florida Voting Rights: How the coronavirus will affect the 2020 presidential election is still unknown, but multiple states have already postponed their primaries. One state that didn’t was Florida, and on Tuesday we published records showing how ill-equipped the state was to tell formerly incarcerated citizens whether they owed remaining fines or fees — i.e., whether they could vote, thanks to a state law that added restrictions to the November 2018 ballot measure that reinstated those citizens’ right to vote.
New Ukraine Documents: Last week, we received another 200-plus pages of documents from the State Department. The records, Gordon Sondland’s emails from May through September 2019, include messages to an investor about a “Ukraine deal” as well as emails mentioning the Ukraine pressure campaign.
Impoundment Control Act Violation: In January, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) withheld aid from Ukraine in 2019, the agency violated the Impoundment Control Act (ICA), which was meant to prevent the president from overwriting Congress’ funding decisions with their own agenda. We filed FOIA requests with OMB for sent emails, calendar entries, and text messages concerning the ICA. We also sent a request to the Justice Department for Ukraine-related records of U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard Donoghue, who was involved in coordinating Justice Department Ukraine investigations.
Trade Favors for Chinese Company ZTE: In April 2018, the Commerce Department announced sanctions against Chinese telecom company ZTE after discovering that the company was violating the terms of a 2017 legal settlement. Less than a month later, and after “working with” Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Trump administration decided to lift the sanctions despite bipartisan objection. Reportedly, former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s forthcoming book raises questions about how Trump negotiates with autocratic leaders, specifically referencing the ZTE affair. We filed FOIA requests to Commerce, the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Treasury for communications between agency officials and White House personnel about the company.
Pushing the Case Against Net Neutrality: Last month the White House released the Economic Report of the President, which claimed that repealing net neutrality rules would eventually increase incomes and “consumer welfare by almost $40 billion per year.” Some have called the report’s findings “pseudo-economics,” and Vice reported that several expert sources claimed that “the study is one of the most misleading government tech policy reports they’d ever seen.” This report is only the latest move by the Trump administration to push against net neutrality policies maintained by states like California and Maine — policies that were implemented after Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai helped repeal net neutrality rules at the federal level. We asked the FCC for communications with the White House concerning the report and for communications around the time of the report’s release.
DOJ Religious Liberty Training: The Justice Department held training for agency lawyers on religious liberty laws last week, raising concerns that the agency was using religious freedom as a pretext to roll back anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community. According to the New York Times, “Lawyers who worked at the Justice Department during the past three administrations could not recall a similar week of training sessions,” and the initiative was a part of Attorney General William Barr’s campaign to focus on religious freedom cases. We’re seeking training materials — including presentation notes, handouts, agendas, and event recordings — used during the DOJ’s liberty laws training.
Nevada Opportunity Zones: One outcome of the Trump administration’s 2017 tax act was the designation of opportunity zones — economically distressed communities where investment projects may be eligible for certain tax breaks. Advocates of opportunity zones see them as an exciting incentive for development, but critics point out that the policy allows wealthy investors to collect tax breaks in low-income areas without necessarily contributing to the social welfare of the community. We asked the Nevada Department of the Administration for communications between or among high-ranking Nevada officials and officials from the Treasury Department or White House. We also asked Nevada for communications with Michael Milken, financier and founder of the Milken Institute, as well as a vocal advocate of opportunity zone policy.
RNC’s Unofficial Census Documents: For several years, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has been sending misleading documents formatted to look like official census forms to people across the United States, including a lengthy questionnaire that resembles the real census. Trump’s reelection campaign has sent text messages to some recipients of the questionnaire, urging them to fill out the form. We asked the Census Bureau for communications with the RNC, the Donald J. Trump for President campaign, and White House personnel.
Waiting to Vote: Texas voters waited in massive lines to cast their ballots in the state’s primary election earlier this month, renewing concerns about voter suppression. Hours after polls closed, reporting from across the state confirmed that residents were waiting in line to vote well into the evening. We’ve been keeping track of how states are protecting (or neglecting) voting rights with our State Accountability Project, and this week we asked the Harris County elections department for their records concerning voter wait times during the primary.
Anti-Impeachment Letter: In January, 21 Republican attorneys general sent a letter to the U.S. Senate asking the Senate to acquit Trump after his impeachment by the House of Representatives. The letter was followed by a press conference organized by the Republican Attorneys General Association. We asked the Justice Department and the attorneys general of Florida, Texas, and Georgia for email communications with specific agencies about the letter.
Part of Investigation: