News Roundup: The Grift Economy

The grifts that have defined the presidency of Donald Trump — both those within the administration and those cozily adjacent to it — have come in many forms, from the installation of campaign megadonors to positions of power to the funneling of taxpayer money to Trump’s real-estate business. On Thursday came the news that former Trump strategist Steve Bannon and associates had been arrested for their alleged involvement in a scheme that perfectly exemplifies the self-dealing and influence-peddling that permeates the Trump administration.

Bannon was arrested on a yacht off the coast of Connecticut (by postal inspectors, as some have noted with irony given the ongoing controversy over mail interference) for fraud and money-laundering in the We Build the Wall crowd-funding campaign. We Build the Wall sought donations from individuals for the private construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a Trump campaign promise he has failed to deliver for his anti-immigration political base. Federal prosecutors allege that Bannon and three others, including Brian Kolfage, who founded We Build the Wall, conspired to siphon off hundreds of thousands for personal expenses from the more than $25 million in donations.

The project has drawn scrutiny from the start, though questions about its legality didn’t stop the participation of high-profile Trump supporters like Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state who co-led Trump’s now-defunct voter-fraud commission, and Erik Prince, a defense contractor (and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos), on We Build the Wall’s advisory board.

Since Bannon and the other men’s arrests, the president has attempted to distance himself from the organization. But previously, Kobach has claimed that Trump gave the effort his “blessing.” And while attending an event hosted by We Build the Wall last summer, Donald Trump Jr. praised the group as “private enterprise at its finest.” 

The organization had also been working with construction company Fisher Industries, which is headed by GOP donor and Trump supporter Tommy Fisher. Last year, the Washington Post reported that the president had aggressively been pushing the Army Corps of Engineers to award a large wall-construction contract to the company; in May, Fisher Industries secured a $1.3 billion deal.

According to the Daily Beast, Kolfage was also planning to use the data he’d acquired from the wall venture — names, addresses, phone numbers — to start a Republican fundraising firm. This comes after reports in the spring indicated that, in another effort to turn a profit, Kolfage had formed a business to sell large quantities of N95 face masks.

It is also worth noting that the charges against Bannon, Kolfage, and the two other men were brought by federal prosecutors in the office of the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York. The former U.S. attorney for SDNY, Geoffrey Berman, had been controversially forced out of his position in June by Attorney General William Barr, raising questions about whether Barr was attempting to interfere in that office’s investigations of various Trump associates, including those connected to Rudy Giuliani. You can see our requests for records related to We Build the Wall, Kolfage, and Fisher Industries here, and read more about our ongoing investigation into Barr’s politicization of the Justice Department here.

After three and a half years of the Trump administration, the grift continues. Read more below about what else has been going on this week.

DeJoy Testifies Friday and Monday: Postmaster General Louis DeJoy will appear before the Senate Homeland Security Committee Friday morning, where he has defended the much-denounced changes he’s overseen at the U.S. Postal Service. Earlier this week, in response to widespread outrage and concern that the changes were designed to hamper the post office’s ability to handle a surge in mail-in voting — not to mention the president’s own brazen admission that he was holding up USPS funding to make absentee voting harder — DeJoy issued a statement saying he would postpone many of the cost-cutting measures he’s imposed until after the November election. But since then, Vice has reported that the Postal Service had instructed employees across the country not to reconnect any mail-sorting machines, and NBC News published images showing many machines out of service and dismantled. 

DeJoy, a Trump donor who joined the administration in June, and his wife, Aldona Wos, who Trump nominated to be ambassador to Canada earlier this year, hold tens of millions in a logistics firm DeJoy previously ran. According to the New York Times, DeJoy received up to $7 million in income last year from the company.

On Thursday, House investigators revealed that DeJoy had not been among the candidates for the postmaster job recommended by a USPS-hired search firm, and that a top USPS official who is also a Republican donor had put forward DeJoy’s name. In congressional testimony, David Williams, the former vice chair of the USPS board of governors, accused Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin of using his department’s lending authority to force changes that would turn USPS into a “political tool” for the Trump administration.

We’ve been investigating political interference at the post office, and requested records of DeJoy’s communications and calendars. This month, USPS rejected our Freedom of Information Act request for his calendars, saying they were “maintained on a USPS computer” for DeJoy’s personal use and that the entries “are not agency records subject to the FOIA.” We’re appealing what Wall Street Journal reporter Ted Mann described as a “Hall of Fame FOIA denial” — the public needs to know who DeJoy has been meeting with.

DeJoy will also appear before the House Oversight Committee on Monday, where he’ll likely face some tough questions. For today, Sen. Ron Johnson, the chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, defended DeJoy’s record in his opening remarks — more about Johnson below.

Ethics Watchdogs Call for Investigation into Sen. Johnson’s Abuse of Office: Last week, American Oversight and the Center for Media and Democracy submitted a complaint to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, calling for an investigation into Johnson’s advancement of discredited political attacks against Democratic presidential nominee Joseph Biden. Senate rules prohibit lawmakers from using their official positions and resources to engage in campaign activity, and Johnson is not only pushing debunked claims about Biden’s handling of U.S. policy toward Ukraine while vice president; he also appears to be using information from foreign individuals with ties to Russia, who have publicly said they were working to help get Trump reelected.

Multiple officials have testified that there was no credible or factual basis for allegations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election or for the efforts of Trump and Rudy Giuliani to push Ukraine to investigate Biden. And Johnson himself supported Biden’s 2016 position with regard to Ukraine.

But that hasn’t stopped Republican Senate committees led by Johnson and Sen. Chuck Grassley from advancing the discredited narrative. And further evidence of the politicized nature of those efforts is the fact that the State Department is refusing to turn over to the House Foreign Affairs Committee the very same documents it had provided to the Senate committees in their investigation. Over at Just Security, American Oversight’s Molly Claflin and Austin Evers pull apart the State Department’s nonsensical argument and explain why it shows Secretary Mike Pompeo’s and his enablers’ disdain for constitutional separation of powers.

Pompeo’s Military Housing Request Alarmed Officials: Both Politico and CNN reported this week on a memo obtained by American Oversight in our investigation into Pompeo’s housing arrangements. The memo shows a top Navy lawyer warning that the secretary’s initial request to rent a home on a military base was “problematic” for “factual, legal, fiscal, and ethical issues” and because it raised the issue of whether Pompeo would be displacing actual military officers already on the waiting list for limited housing. According to the memo, the Navy had been contacted “apparently through informal channels” about the request.

New Justice Department Documents About Rudy Giuliani’s Ukraine Efforts: American Oversight had previously uncovered records showing that Barr had in August 2019 met with Joseph diGenova, a Giuliani ally who worked with Giuliani to dig up dirt on Biden. New documents show that Barr had also requested that diGenova also meet with John Cronan, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.

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January 31, 2020

News Roundup: Hear No Evil, See No Evil

Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, DOJ - Executive Office for Immigration Review, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Prisons, HHS - Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Texas - Harris County, Texas Office of the Governor
January 6, 2020

In the Documents: Stephen Miller’s Emails with Top ICE Official

DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement
December 27, 2019

American Oversight’s 2019 in Review: Nine Important Stories We Uncovered

December 20, 2019

News Roundup: Beyond Impeachment — The Investigations Continue

Congress, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of Transportation, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, DOL - Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, Federal Communications Commission, Government Accountability Office, HHS - Administration for Children and Families, HHS - Food and Drug Administration, Office of Management and Budget
December 17, 2019

American Oversight Sues for U.S. Embassy Communications About Trump Properties

Department of State
December 13, 2019

News Roundup: Stephen Miller’s Extremist Network

Congress, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DOI - Bureau of Land Management, DOI - Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Environmental Protection Agency, Georgia - Carroll County, Office of Management and Budget, Texas Attorney General, Treasury - Office of Foreign Assets Control
December 6, 2019

News Roundup: Impeachment Report, Border Wall Contracts, and Pompeo’s Meeting with GOP Donors

Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State
November 22, 2019

News Roundup: Fiona Hill’s Warnings, Nikki Haley’s Emails, and Matt Bevin’s Stay at Trump’s Hotel

Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DOJ - Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, Kentucky Office of the Governor
November 15, 2019

News Roundup: Impeachment Inquiry Goes Public

Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Department of Veterans Affairs, Florida House of Representatives, Georgia - Bartow County, Georgia - Carroll County, Georgia - Decatur County, Georgia - Lowndes County, Georgia - Paulding County, Georgia Secretary of State, HHS - Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Texas - Dallas County, Texas - Harris County, Texas - Travis County, White House - Council on Environmental Quality
November 13, 2019

American Oversight Sues DHS for Cuccinelli Records

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
November 8, 2019

News Roundup: Ukraine-Related Documents, Hurdles for Asylum-Seekers, and Chad Wolf’s Involvement in Family Separation

Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Interior, DOJ - Office of Information Policy, DOJ - Office of Legal Counsel, Environmental Protection Agency, Florida Office of the Governor, Office of Management and Budget
October 11, 2019

News Roundup: Impeachment, Obstruction, and More Questions about Rick Perry

Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, HHS - Administration for Children and Families, HHS - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
October 9, 2019

Early Trump Administration — and McAleenan — Communications About Immigration Policy

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
October 4, 2019

News Roundup: The Public Needs Answers

Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of State
September 13, 2019

News Roundup: Photos of Detention Centers for Migrant Children; Stephen Miller’s Hand in Immigration Policy

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Georgia Office of the Governor, Georgia Secretary of State, HHS - Administration for Children and Families, HHS Office of Inspector General, Small Business Administration
September 8, 2019

Photos from Inside Detention Centers for Migrant Children

Department of Health and Human Services, HHS - Administration for Children and Families, HHS Office of Inspector General
August 30, 2019

News Roundup: Remain in Mexico’s Harmful Effects and Trump’s Dangerous Impatience

Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, Department of the Interior, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, DOI - U.S. Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency, Florida House of Representatives, Florida Senate, HHS - Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services
July 19, 2019

News Roundup: Investigating the Fallout from Spring’s DHS Shakeup

Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Florida Office of the Governor, General Services Administration, Tennessee Valley Authority
June 27, 2019

The Department of Homeland Security Doesn’t Know Where Trump Got Those Immigration Numbers, Either

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
June 18, 2019

Lawsuit Seeks Records to Shed Light on Deaths of Detainees in DHS Custody

Department of Homeland Security, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
June 13, 2019

Documents Reveal New Information About 2017 CBP Media Efforts

DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
May 24, 2019

News Roundup: Congressional Hearing Shows and No-Shows

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 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, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, DOJ - Federal Bureau of Investigation, Florida - Taylor County
May 3, 2019

News Roundup: Above the Law

Congress, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Veterans Affairs, General Services Administration, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
May 3, 2019

New Evidence of Emoluments Violations Prompts American Oversight Lawsuit

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 24, 2019

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

April 17, 2019

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

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

News Roundup: DeVos, Mnuchin, Barr Testify in Congress

Congress, 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, DOI - Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Environmental Protection Agency, White House - Council on Environmental Quality
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 4, 2019

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

February 15, 2019

News Roundup: Citizenship, the Census and the Constitution

Department of Commerce, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice
February 5, 2019

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

DOI - National Park Service, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget
February 1, 2019

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

Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security
January 18, 2019

News Roundup: Two Troubling Inspector General Reports

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

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

Department of Homeland Security
January 3, 2019

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

December 27, 2018

Countdown to Oversight in 2019

December 12, 2018

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

Department of Homeland Security, Department of State, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection
December 5, 2018

American Oversight Sues Administration for Records of Family-Separation Policy

Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, DHS - Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS - U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, DHS - U.S. Customs and Border Protection, DOJ - Executive Office for Immigration Review, HHS - Administration for Children and Families, HHS Office of Inspector General
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, DOJ - 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
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
August 4, 2017

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

July 24, 2017

American Oversight Launches “Defund Trump” Investigation

Commodity Futures Trading Commission, 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 the U.S. Trade Representative, White House - Council on Environmental Quality, White House - Office of Science and Technology Policy
June 28, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Sues GSA for Trump International Hotel Lease Records

General Services Administration
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