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:
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.
Part of Investigation: