News Roundup: Testing, Messaging and Missed Chances

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:

  • Testing Shortages: More information comes out every day about missteps and problems that led to the failed testing rollout, from turning down World Health Organization tests and the creation of faulty tests to email outages and excessive bureaucratic hurdles in the Emergency Use Authorization process, which allows outside entities to develop and use their own tests.
  • The Disbandment of the NSC’s Global Health Unit: Back in 2018, the White House dissolved the National Security Council’s pandemic unit, a decision widely seen by experts as having hindered the administration’s response to the coronavirus.
  • White House Messaging Control: Trump had consistently downplayed the seriousness of the outbreak before his recent claims that he had always been taking it seriously. His early public-relations-style spin and apparent concern only for the stock market has had and will have serious repercussions.
  • Politicization of the Crisis and Harm to the Most Vulnerable: Falling back on one of his favorite political rallying cries, Trump has linked the outbreak of coronavirus in the United States to human migration. And people in migrant detention centers or prisons remain particularly vulnerable to the virus’ spread.
  • Financial Industry Influence: Banks have been lobbying officials for deregulatory actions, including lower capital requirements, which experts say could be risky for the financial system. And the Senate relief plan unveiled this week includes large tax cuts for corporations.

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.

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June 13, 2019

Documents Reveal New Information About 2017 CBP Media Efforts

Customs and Border Protection
Investigation Update
June 7, 2019

News Roundup: Investigating Outside Influence and Political Appointments at the State Department

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of Transportation, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Administration
News
June 4, 2019

Documents Reveal Extent of Koch-Funded VA Privatization Group’s Influence

Department of Veterans Affairs
Investigation Update
May 30, 2019

Trump Administration Appeals Court Decision Ordering It to Turn Over Communications with Congress About ACA Sabotage

Congress, Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
May 24, 2019

News Roundup: Congressional Hearing Shows and No-Shows

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Taylor County - Florida
News
April 24, 2019

American Oversight and ACLU of Massachusetts Sue DHS for Border Security Plan

Investigation Update
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
News
March 13, 2019

Two Years of American Oversight

News
March 12, 2019

Investigating the Trump Administration’s Efforts to Sell Nuclear Technology to Saudi Arabia

Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, International Trade Administration, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
News
March 8, 2019

Watchdogs Sue HHS Following Women’s Health Website Overhaul

Department of Health and Human Services
News
March 1, 2019

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

Department of Health and Human Services
News
February 22, 2019

News Roundup: Wilbur Ross’ Uncertified Financial Disclosures

News
February 21, 2019

New Lawsuit Seeks HHS Communications with Anti-Abortion Groups

Department of Health and Human Services
News
February 15, 2019

News Roundup: Citizenship, the Census and the Constitution

Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice
News
February 1, 2019

News Roundup: More Troops at the Border Means More Questions for the Administration

Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security
News
January 28, 2019

Court Orders Trump Administration to Turn Over More Voter-Fraud Commission Records

White House
Investigation Update
January 18, 2019

News Roundup: Two Troubling Inspector General Reports

Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, General Services Administration
News
January 11, 2019

News Roundup: The Administration’s Misleading Claims About Terrorists at the Southern Border

Department of Homeland Security
News
January 9, 2019

Investigating the Acting Defense Secretary’s Ties to Boeing

Department of Defense
News
December 27, 2018

Countdown to Oversight in 2019

News
December 12, 2018

Audit the Wall: No Plans, Funding or Timeline — And No Wall

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State
Investigation Update
December 5, 2018

American Oversight Sues Administration for Records of Family-Separation Policy

Administration for Children and Families, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Executive Office for Immigration Review, HHS Office of Inspector General, Immigration and Customs Enforcement
Investigation Update
October 18, 2018

Inside the Documents: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ Calendars

Department of Commerce
Investigation Update
News
June 6, 2018

USTR Emails Reveal Tensions, Inconsistencies in Trump Administration’s NAFTA Strategy

Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
Investigation Update
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
News
February 23, 2018

FCC Commissioner Calls for Trump’s Reelection, Violates Hatch Act

Federal Communications Commission
News
February 9, 2018

New Lawsuit Seeks DHS Border Wall Emails with White House, Fox News, Border States

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security
Investigation Update
February 6, 2018

Voter Fraud Commission Asked Texas to Highlight Hispanic Surnames in Voter Data

White House
Investigation Update
December 20, 2017

American Oversight Expands Investigation into Tax Bill

Department of the Treasury, Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
December 17, 2017

Trump Transition GSA Emails and Memorandum of Understanding

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
November 30, 2017

New FOIAs Seek Treasury Department’s Secret Tax Bill Analyisis

Department of the Treasury
Investigation Update
November 16, 2017

Maine Secretary of State Dunlap Election Commission Lawsuit

Investigation Update
November 8, 2017

Statement on Interference in AT&T-Time Warner Merger

Department of Justice
News
November 3, 2017

American Oversight Launches ‘NAFTA Watch’

Department of Commerce, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
Investigation Update
October 31, 2017

American Oversight Sues State Department for Records Showing Efforts to Compel Mexico to Pay for Border Wall

Department of State
News
October 17, 2017

Health Care Lawsuit: Fighting for Transparency

Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
October 17, 2017

5 Questions for Attorney General Sessions

Department of Justice
September 18, 2017

Austin Evers Discusses Trump Inaugural Funds on MSNBC

News
September 15, 2017

Congress Enters Legal Fight to Block Release of Obamacare Repeal Emails

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

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

Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
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
Investigation Update
September 2, 2017

DOJ Confirms Trump Lied in “Wiretap” Tweets

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
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
Investigation Update
August 1, 2017

American Oversight Obtains Attorney General Sessions SF-86 Signature Page

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
August 1, 2017

Statement on Waiver of Environmental Regulations for Border Wall

Investigation Update
July 28, 2017

Watchdog Group Calls for Hatch Act Investigation of Gorka

White House
July 27, 2017

Call for OSC Investigation of Pruitt Travel to Oklahoma

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
July 26, 2017

American Oversight Sues FCC to Obtain Net Neutrality Communications with Industry Groups

Federal Communications Commission
Investigation Update
July 21, 2017

American Oversight Calls for Resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
News
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
Investigation Update
July 19, 2017

American Oversight Demands Answers about Outsourcing of Carrier Jobs

Department of Commerce, Department of the Treasury, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
Investigation Update
News
July 13, 2017

DOJ Releases Redacted Page of Sessions’s SF-86 to American Oversight

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
July 12, 2017

American Oversight Demands Release of Pence-Kobach Commission Records

Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, General Services Administration
News
July 11, 2017

Investigation of Trump Administration Actions and the AT&T-Time Warner Merger

Department of Justice
News
June 16, 2017

Watchdog Group Files Lawsuit on Trump Border Wall

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Interior, Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
May 24, 2017

After American Oversight Lawsuit, DOJ Confirms that Sessions Lied about Russian Contacts

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 16, 2017

American Oversight Demands Release of Comey-Trump Memos

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 12, 2017

Letter to Burr and Warner: Senate Should Request Trump-Comey Tapes

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 10, 2017

Statement on the Firing of FBI Director Comey

Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 10, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Calls for IG Investigation of Sessions for Violating Recusal

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
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
Investigation Update
April 26, 2017

American Oversight Seeks Release of FCC Net Neutrality Communications

Federal Communications Commission
Investigation Update
April 19, 2017

American Oversight Sues DOJ for Release of Trump Tower Wiretap Records, Russia Investigation Documents

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, White House
Investigation Update
March 28, 2017

Statement on Trump Administration Proposal to Build Border Wall South of Rio Grande

Department of the Interior
Investigation Update
March 24, 2017

American Oversight Launches Investigation of President Trump’s Border Wall

Department of Homeland Security
Investigation Update
March 23, 2017

American Oversight Demands Release of Secret Health Care Negotiations

Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
March 22, 2017

Statement on Intelligence Committee Chairman Nunes’ Actions

Investigation Update
March 17, 2017

American Oversight Calls on Congress to Investigate Trump Aide’s Reported Ties to Nazi Group

Office of Government Ethics, White House
News