News Roundup: The Post-Impeachment Purge and the Knock of Authoritarianism

The Russians are working to interfere in the 2020 elections on behalf of President Donald Trump, and according to the New York Times, the president is worried the Democrats will do something about it.

That’s just one piece of an alarming string of news stories this week that paint a clear picture of how the president’s post-impeachment surge of authoritarian attacks on our democracy are becoming more blatant and bold. Last week, the focus was on politicizing the Justice Department and turning it into a machine for Trump’s personal retribution; this week, the president appears to be reshaping the U.S. intelligence community to entrench his power.

So if news about White House complacency in the face of foreign election interference didn’t get your attention (we know it probably didn’t surprise you, given the Ukraine scandal), here are some other items for your consideration:

  • After learning that an intelligence official had told House lawmakers that Russia wants to see Trump re-elected, Trump grew angry at Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence (DNI), for being disloyal. “Trump’s furious response ruined Maguire’s chances of becoming the permanent intelligence chief,” the Washington Post reported. Maguire’s tenure wasn’t set to end until next month. ODNI’s Principal Executive Andrew Hallman and General Counsel Jason Klitenic will also be leaving their posts. That’s on top of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, and Defense Undersecretary John Rood. “If you don’t agree with the king, you’re gone,” Rep. Mike Quigley told the Daily Beast.
  • Trump appointed Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell as the new acting DNI. Grenell has not served in any U.S. intelligence agency, but he is a vocal political ally of the president — and that is all that appears to matter to Trump. According to the Post, Trump has been “ask[ing] aides which employees are ‘bad’ or ‘leakers’ and deserve to be fired.” We’re asking for Grenell’s text messages and external emails.
  • Trump apparently learned of the congressional intelligence briefing from Rep. Devin Nunes, who has often fed Trump’s paranoid suspicions (and has his own questionable connections to the Ukraine scandal). One of Nunes’s former top staffers on the House Intelligence Committee, Kash Patel, this week became a senior adviser to Grenell. Patel was a lead author of a report criticizing the investigation into Russian election interference.
  • Pro-Trump commentators have been praising the exit of many top FBI and Justice Department officials involved in the Russia investigation. That includes the four prosecutors who withdrew from the case against Trump ally Roger Stone after Attorney General William Barr intervened in the sentencing recommendations. But as Politico reported this week, many of those commentators want the purge to be bigger. And they have Trump’s ear.
  • John McEntee — a former Trump personal aide and body man fired in 2018 over financial crime allegations — was rehired and promoted to head the White House’s personnel office. During a Thursday meeting, McEntee reportedly asked White House liaisons from cabinet agencies to identify political appointees believed to be anti-Trump. According to Axios, “Trump has empowered McEntee — whom he considers an absolute loyalist — to purge the ‘bad people’ and ‘Deep State.’”

Now that we have your attention, here’s what else we’ve been investigating this week:

Presidential Pardons: Roger Stone was sentenced to more than three years in prison this week, but already there are calls from Trump allies for a presidential pardon. Trump doesn’t seem unwilling — he recently issued a number of controversial pardons for white-collar criminals, and has reportedly assembled a group of advisers, helmed by Jared Kushner, to help him determine how to exercise his pardon powers. As a federal advisory committee, that task force should make its records available to the public under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), and we sent a letter to Kushner on Thursday formally requesting records from the group’s meetings. Read more here.

New Lawsuits: American Oversight sued the Department of the Interior for the communications of Solicitor Daniel Jorjani — a former Koch brothers adviser — and Acting Bureau of Land Management Director William Pendley — a pro-industry, anti-public lands advocate overseeing 250 million acres of … public lands. We also sued the Departments of State, Transportation and Energy for records of communications between officials and the office or campaign of Sen. Mitch McConnell to find out what kind of influence the majority leader has at those agencies. (We already know he brags about the special treatment Kentucky gets at the Transportation Department.)

Covering Up Crimes: We have an explainer piece on a recent amicus curiae brief we filed in support of the Center for Public Integrity’s challenge to overbroad redactions on Ukraine-related documents it obtained in December. To put it simply, executive privilege cannot be used to cover up communications about governmental misconduct or criminality. To put it even more simply, evidence of wrongdoing is not privileged information.

Medicaid Block Grants: Last month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) invited states to submit proposals to implement Medicaid block grants — a health-care model that allows states to cut and transform Medicaid benefits that are otherwise protected under federal policy. The plan could affect millions of poor Americans currently covered under the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion by limiting program eligibility and cutting access to care. We filed FOIA requests for communications and any legal analyses about these block grants.

Giuliani’s and Prince’s Venezuela Work: In December, the Washington Post reported that the president’s attorney Rudy Giuliani and then-Rep. Pete Sessions were involved in a back-channel phone call with Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro in September 2018. Not only did Sessions travel to Venezuela months before the phone call, but Trump supporter and Blackwater founder (and Betsy DeVos’s brother) Erik Prince reportedly made a trip to Caracas in November 2019. U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliot Abrams has since stated that neither Giuliani nor Prince were acting on official government business. We asked multiple agencies for records of officials’ communications about these events. 

Leonard Leo’s New Project: Leonard Leo, the current co-chair of the Federalist Society, which works to shape the judicial system by promoting conservative judges through a mix of media campaigns and networking, announced a new project last month: a conservative consulting firm called CRC Advisers. We requested records reflecting communications with Leo from the Department of State, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Department of Labor

Barr’s Travel Expenses: Tensions between Attorney General Barr and Donald Trump made headlines recently after an ABC interview in which Barr said that Trump’s tweets “make it impossible” for him to do his job. Reports that Barr has considered resigning have been met with some skepticism, and we’re still looking into his travels to multiple foreign countries to discuss the FBI’s inquiry into Russian intervention during the 2016 election. We filed a request to the Department of Justice for Barr’s travel expenses. 

Impeachment Trial Communications: Though the Senate acquitted Trump during its witness-less impeachment trial, there are still many questions left unanswered. House Democrats pushed for further evidence to be included in the impeachment trial, but the Senate rejected proposals to hear witness testimony and to examine new documents. We’re asking multiple agencies for communications about Trump’s impeachment between senior agency officials and key senators, including Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley, and Rob Portman. We also filed a request with the Energy Department for communications with Portman and Sen. Ron Johnson leading up to former Secretary Rick Perry’s trip to Ukraine for President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration.

Pro-Trump Company’s $400 Million Border Wall Contract: The North Dakota-based Fisher Sand and Gravel won a contract from the Defense Department in December to build sections of the border wall across an Arizona wildlife refuge. Leading up to the $400 million contract award, Trump reportedly urged officials at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pick the company, despite being told that Fisher Sand and Gravel did not meet agency standards. According to reports, Trump’s fondness for the company lies in part with its chief executive, Tommy Fisher, who had repeatedly promoted his firm on Fox News. We filed requests with the Army Corps, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Defense for records and communications concerning the contract, including any related status reports on the wall’s construction.

Baby Powder Asbestos Testing: In October 2019, the Food and Drug Administration advised consumers to stop using a batch of Johnson & Johnson baby powder after a test revealed the presence of asbestos. Johnson & Johnson claims that third-party testing of the batch found no asbestos and blames faulty testing protocols. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) conducted an additional analysis on behalf of the FDA, and confirmed the presence of asbestos. Congressional regulators have called on the FDA and OSHA to release the results of OSHA’s test — we’ve filed FOIA requests with the Labor Department and the FDA for the final results and for communications about whether to release those results. 

Trump Properties: According to a Washington Post analysis, the president has visited one of his properties on nearly one-third of his total days in office. His adult children visit frequently, too. This adds up to big bucks for a president who hasn’t financially divested from his business — for instance, it cost $13.6 million in taxpayer money for the Secret Service to secure Mar-a-Lago for just four of the president’s trips there. And the Post revealed this month that Trump’s company bills the Secret Service for rooms used during those trips at rates as high as $650 a night. We requested records from the Office of Management and Budget and the Secret Service that can show any and all government spending at Trump properties. 

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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
News
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 25, 2019

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

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

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

News
March 8, 2019

Watchdogs Sue HHS Following Women’s Health Website Overhaul

Department of Health and Human Services
News
March 4, 2019

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

Investigation Update
March 1, 2019

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

Department of Health and Human Services
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 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
Investigation Update
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 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
January 3, 2019

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

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
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
Investigation Update
November 8, 2018

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

Department of State
Investigation Update
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
Investigation Update
May 3, 2018

Court Rules in Favor of American Oversight in Trump Hotel Lawsuit

General Services Administration
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 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
December 17, 2017

Trump Transition GSA Emails and Memorandum of Understanding

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
December 11, 2017

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

Department of State
Investigation Update
November 2, 2017

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

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

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

Small Business Administration
Investigation Update
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 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 4, 2017

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

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 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
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 13, 2017

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

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
June 28, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Sues GSA for Trump International Hotel Lease Records

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
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
May 3, 2017

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

Department of State
News
April 25, 2017

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

Department of State
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 29, 2017

Call for GSA Inspector General to Review Trump Hotel Lease Decision

General Services Administration
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