News Roundup: The Preservation of Official Records

The heavily redacted Mar-a-Lago search warrant affidavit was released on Friday, revealing new details about the investigation of former President Trump’s handling of official documents. Also this week, an investigation by American Oversight and the ACLU of Massachusetts revealed that another federal agency had deleted text messages of top officials.

More Deleted Trump Administration Texts

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that in 2017 it had instructed Trump administration personnel to wipe their agency-issued cell phones when leaving their posts — a practice that persisted even after the agency received public records requests for senior officials’ texts regarding an ongoing federal criminal investigation.

  • ICE’s admissions came in new filings in the lawsuit brought by American Oversight and the ACLU of Massachusetts for the release of records concerning the criminal prosecution of a Massachusetts state court judge. Read CNN’s report on the filings here.
  • On Monday, we asked the court to order ICE, while the lawsuit is pending, to preserve in their present condition any mobile devices that had been issued to the officials named in our requests, and to continue its efforts to access the phone of former Senior Adviser Jon Feere.
  • This comes after news that the Department of Defense and the Army had admitted in court filings in another American Oversight lawsuit that the phones of certain top Trump administration officials had been wiped — along with any texts from Jan. 6, 2021. Also gone were the Jan. 6 texts of top homeland security officials.
  • Following the revelations about DHS and the Pentagon, those agencies announced new policies regarding the preservation of text messages and other information stored on mobile devices.

Trump Accountability

The release of the redacted Mar-a-Lago affidavit revealed that in the 15 boxes of records recovered in January by the National Archives from Trump’s Florida club were 184 documents with classified markings, including 25 labeled top secret. The affidavit also said that many of those materials included the highest national security restrictions requiring retention in government storage facilities, and that there was “probable cause to believe that evidence of obstruction” would be found at Mar-a-Lago. The legal memo justifying the affidavit’s redactions also cited “a significant number of civilian witnesses.”

Here’s what else we learned this week about that investigation:

  • According to the New York Times, the government has recovered more than 300 classified records from the 15 boxes recovered in January combined with another set turned over in June and those seized by the FBI earlier this month.
  • Correspondence between the Archives and Trump’s legal team revealed that the classified material in the 15 boxes amounted to more than 700 pages. “The May 10 letter,” reported Politico, “showed that NARA and federal investigators had grown increasingly alarmed about potential damage to national security caused by the warehousing of these documents at Mar-a-Lago, as well as by Trump’s resistance to sharing them with the FBI.”
  • Back in May 2021, the Archives had asked for presidential records to be returned, citing Trump’s own lawyers’ determinations that they should be. According to the Washington Post: “About two dozen boxes of presidential records stored in then President Donald Trump’s White House residence were not returned … in the final days of his term even after Archives officials were told by a Trump lawyer that the documents should be given back.”
  • Our lawsuit against the National Archives for records related to the January seizure of those 15 boxes is still ongoing — read more here.

Of course, that’s not the only investigation facing Trump and his associates right now. Here are the latest headlines related to probes into his efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss, from the Justice Department and the House select committee to the criminal investigation in Georgia’s Fulton County:

  • Justice Department issues new subpoena to National Archives for more Jan. 6 documents (CNN)
  • Rep. Scott Perry suing to block DOJ access to his cell phone (Politico)
  • Jan. 6 panel questions Trump cabinet on 25th Amendment talks (New York Times)
  • Jan. 6 panel investigators traveled to Copenhagen to view Stone footage (Politico)
  • Mark Meadows ordered to testify in Fulton County probe of Trump election overturn efforts (Politico)
  • Trump-tied attorney who helped craft fake electors strategy resists grand jury subpoena (Politico)
  • Sen. Graham tells judge that grand jury should not be allowed to question him on any topics laid out in subpoena (CNN)

Wisconsin Election Investigation Lawsuit

On Thursday, we asked the Wisconsin Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling from earlier that day allowing out-of-state lawyers to represent the Office of Special Counsel in our ongoing public records litigation, citing significant questions about whether those lawyers are authorized to speak for the office, which is currently unstaffed.

  • State Supreme Court rules require that lawyers representing Wisconsin organizations must be acting through “duly authorized constituents.” We asked attorneys James Bopp and Michael Dean who was authorized to direct OSC’s lawyers following the firing of Special Counsel Michael Gableman this month, but received no answer.
  • Gableman now lists as his employer the Thomas More Society, a conservative legal group that was subleasing office space from OSC, as revealed in records we previously uncovered. He also recently spoke at an election forum hosted by MyPillow CEO and prominent election denier Mike Lindell.

American Oversight Letter to Maryland Attorney General

This past week, we sent a letter to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh asking him to take action to prevent records of state officials’ communications from being destroyed by auto-deleting messaging apps. 

  • In December 2021, the Washington Post reported that Gov. Larry Hogan and members of his office had conducted official business using Wickr, an app that allows users to send messages that automatically delete after a certain amount of time.
  • In January, Hogan had argued that Wickr messages are not official government communications. Our letter to Frosh also asked him to issue guidance clarifying that Maryland’s public records law applies to messages on Wickr and similar apps and requires retention of official communications.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

According to new documents obtained by the House pandemic subcommittee, the Trump administration attempted to pressure the FDA to bypass additional safety studies and approve the first coronavirus vaccines ahead of the 2020 election. Senior Trump officials and outside allies — including Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — also pushed the FDA to authorize the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment. 

  • Fauci plans to step down in December after half a century in government (Washington Post)
  • Biden administration plans for booster shot campaign in September (New York Times
  • Jill Biden tests positive for coronavirus again in ‘rebound’ case (New York Times)
  • Millions in Covid aid went to retrain veterans. Only 397 landed jobs (Washington Post
  • Moderna sues Pfizer-BioNTech, alleging coronavirus vaccine patent infringement (Washington Post)
  • Long Covid is keeping as many as 4 million Americans out of work (CNN)

On the Records

Fulton County Grand Jury Subpoenas

Former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was ordered to testify in Fulton County’s probe of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. The district attorney overseeing the investigation is also seeking testimony from Trump-allied lawyer Sidney Powell and Phil Waldron, a retired U.S. Army colonel who aided Trump’s efforts to overturn his loss.

  • Last year, we obtained an email sent by a Meadows aide to Georgia’s deputy secretary of state in late December 2020, the same time the White House was pressuring state officials to reverse Trump’s loss in the state. The email was following up on a surprise visit Meadows had made to Cobb County the week before. 
  • Our investigations of the Big Lie network have also previously uncovered records of Waldron’s communications with state leaders conducting partisan “audits” of 2020 election results, as well as evidence of his contact with prominent proponents of election-overturning schemes.
Title 42

American Oversight has launched several investigations into the development and implementation of Title 42, the provision allowing the federal government to prohibit the entry of people and goods into the U.S. in the interest of public health. Since its implementation by the Trump administration in March 2020, experts have criticized it as a thinly veiled anti-immigration measure that does not mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

  • Our investigations have revealed the role played by former White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller in coordinating efforts to implement the order, and we also obtained a database of complaints and allegations that illustrate the devastating impact the policy has had on migrants, particularly those of certain sexual or racial identities.
  • On Monday, we filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for certain communications and analyses regarding the policy. Read more here.
William Barr’s Pre-Election Promotion of Voter-Fraud Fears

Former Attorney General William Barr’s statements before the House Jan. 6 committee were important and credible rebukes of Trump’s stolen-election lies — but they also obscure the actions he took in the months before the 2020 election that helped sow the same seeds of distrust. Our investigation of the Justice Department’s actions during that time period have highlighted Barr’s role in feeding voter distrust.

  • In September 2020, Barr cited a false story about a case of fraud, saying the department had indicted a man in Texas who’d collected 1,700 mail-in ballots. After prosecutors said there had been no such indictment, the department said Barr had been given the false information in a briefing memo. We requested that memo — but the department told us that no such memo could be found.
  • We also obtained emails that reveal that even after the election was over, Barr tried to codify his memo authorizing prosecutors to open investigations into substantial fraud allegations before election results were certified — a significant change in policy.
  • Barr and other prominent conservatives have since created a legal group aimed at bolstering state legislatures’ ability to set voting rules and reducing courts’ ability to intervene.

Other Stories We’re Following

The Big Lie
  • Files copied from voting systems were shared with Trump supporters, election deniers (Washington Post)
  • Paxton legal opinion jeopardizes Texas election security, experts say (Votebeat/Texas Tribune)
  • MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s weekend-long elections ‘summit’ in Missouri kicks off (Springfield News-Leader)
  • States are bracing for social media-enabled election violence (Bloomberg)
  • The Big Lie messengers who carry a badge and gun (Bolts)
  • Arizona GOP chief Kelli Ward says fake electors never meant to count (Arizona Republic)
  • Conspiracy-promoting Michigan ex-lawmaker sought voting system files (Detroit News)
  • Poll observer increases have election officials tightening rules (Votebeat)
In the States
  • Texas mandates donated ‘In God We Trust’ displays in schools (Axios)
  • Uvalde fires its school police chief in response to shooting (New York Times)
  • California moves to ban sales of new gas-powered cars by 2035 (NPR)
  • Ethics board: SD Gov. Noem may have ‘engaged in misconduct’ (Associated Press)
  • Flood of 2,300 departing workers leaves Texas child welfare agency scrambling (Houston Chronicle)
  • A Michigan library refused to remove an LGBTQ book. The town defunded it. (Washington Post)
  • Arkansas can’t ban treatment of transgender kids, court says (Politico)
Abortion Rights
  • Judge halts part of Idaho’s abortion ban, saying it violates health law (New York Times)
  • Texans who perform abortions now face up to life in prison, $100,000 fine (Texas Tribune)
  • 1 in 3 American women have already lost abortion access. More restrictive laws are coming (Washington Post)
  • Tennessee ‘trigger’ law banning nearly all abortion goes into effect (ABC News)
Voting Rights
  • Arkansas violated the Voting Rights Act by limiting help to voters, a judge rules (New York Times)
  • Supreme Court temporarily blocks Georgia election law said to harm Black voters (New York Times)
  • ‘How did I commit fraud?’ Ex-felon voters confused by arrests, DeSantis’ announcement (Miami Herald)
Trump Administration Accountability
  • Memo details Barr’s justification for clearing Trump of obstruction (New York Times)
  • Trump Interior Secretary Zinke lied to federal investigators about casino case, inspector general report finds (CNN)
National News
  • Biden announces student loan relief for borrowers making less than $125,000 (CNN)
  • How a secretive billionaire handed his fortune to the architect of the right-wing takeover of the courts (ProPublica)
  • Before monkeypox outbreak, U.S. officials knew for years they didn’t have enough of key shot (Politico)
  • A new federal rule will offer more protection to DACA recipients (USA Today)
  • White House launches new war on secrecy (Politico)
  • When private equity takes over a nursing home (New Yorker)