News Roundup: The Public Needs Answers

The news surrounding the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump has been unfolding at a rapid pace, but the pressure on the president and his administration has been even further intensified thanks to Thursday’s public release of damaging text messages sent by government officials.

The text messages were released by House committee chairs after former U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker met with congressional investigators. They contain communications between Volker and an aide to the Ukrainian president about the importance of Ukraine’s assistance in investigating Joe Biden, a potential 2020 rival to Trump, and Biden’s son. “Heard from the White House — assuming President [Volodymyr Zelensky] convinces trump he will investigate/’get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” one of Volker’s messages read. Around this same time, it had become publicly known that the administration was holding up congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine. 

The texts mention Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, who has been at the center of the efforts to pressure Ukraine, and also contain a particularly damning exchange between the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and U.S. diplomat Bill Taylor, in which Taylor says, “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” Sondland’s eyebrow-raising response was “I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. … I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”

But as revelatory as those texts are, there remain numerous unanswered questions, from the involvement of other high-ranking administration officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General William Barr, to the extent that the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into the origins of the Russia probe involve also investigating Biden (see below), to Trump’s reported retaliation against the former ambassador to Ukraine. The urgent need for answers led American Oversight on Friday to ask a federal judge to issue a preliminary injunction in our lawsuit against the State Department, to compel the government to immediately begin processing and producing documents related to Giuliani’s efforts as well as to the former ambassador.

“It’s hard to imagine how the public’s need for the truth about Ukraine could be any more urgent,” said Austin Evers, American Oversight’s executive director. “The text messages make it clear that Trump’s Ukraine coercion efforts went far beyond Giuliani and extended into the highest levels of the State Department. There is clearly a paper trail, and we can’t allow it to be withheld from the public any longer.”

The lawsuit seeks information about the role of senior State Department officials in the Ukraine scandal, including Pompeo, Deputy Secretary John Sullivan, and Counselor to the Secretary T. Ulrich Brechbuhl. The preliminary injunction motion cited the “urgent need to inform the public—now—about the administration’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate a political opponent of the president in order to give the president an electoral advantage.” 

But even with the urgency of this lawsuit and the all-consuming nature of the impeachment proceedings, we’re continuing our oversight of everything else the Trump administration has been up to. Here’s what else has happened this week:

John Gore’s Misleading Statements: We have obtained documents showing that former Justice Department official John Gore made clear misrepresentations — and perhaps outright lied — in a signed declaration to federal court. To avoid a search of his personal email, Gore claimed that his communications with a Chicago Republican Party official over his non-work account were outside the scope of his official work. But emails we uncovered show that he had earlier been instructed by his superior at the Justice Department to look into the Chicago Republican’s concerns, which would, of course, fall under his “official capacity.”

Whitehouse and Leahy Letter: In response to the news of Gore’s misrepresentations, Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Patrick Leahy sent a letter to the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, requesting that the office investigate Gore. Gore, who left the administration in August, was the senior official overseeing the department’s voting rights section, and is already a subject of a sanctions motion for allegedly making misleading statements to Congress and concealing information in litigation over the census citizenship question.

Border Wall: In August, the city council in El Cenizo, Tex., voted to meet with the privately funded We Build the Wall organization to discuss building a barrier in the city. We’ve already been investigating whether there has been any coordination between the crowdfunded group and the federal government, and this week filed a public records request for communications between the group and El Cenizo officials.

Remain in Mexico: The so-called Migrant Protection Protocols, otherwise known as the Remain in Mexico policy, have had devastating consequences for asylum-seekers at the southern border, forcing them to stay in dangerous locations, with limited access to attorneys and information about upcoming court dates. We filed additional Freedom of Information Act requests for more information about the policy’s creation and implementation.

Contractor Hiring Discrimination: This summer, the Department of Labor proposed a rule that would allow federal contractors accused of discrimination to defend their practices on religious grounds. LGBTQ advocates have criticized the proposal, warning that it would allow contractors to fire or refuse to hire LGBTQ individuals, unmarried pregnant workers, or others because of religious beliefs. We’re asking for communications between Labor Department officials and outside organizations to learn whether outside anti-LGBTQ groups influenced the department’s proposal.

Pompeo Complaints: NBC News’ Richard Engel reported that former intelligence officials say that Pompeo was prone to “fits of ‘anger’” while serving as CIA chief. According to Engel, “Pompeo was a bully to subordinates, driving some to quit or seek new assignments. ‘Throwing binders was a popular sport,’ said one.” American Oversight has filed multiple FOIA requests for any records of complaints filed by CIA or State Department employees concerning Pompeo’s conduct.

Methane Rollback: The Trump administration has proposed a rule that would roll back regulations on methane emissions, a significant contributor to climate change. The move was denounced by scientists and environmental advocates, and even the oil and gas industry greeted the news with mixed reactions — BP President Susan Dio said that the EPA should continue to regulate methane because it’s “not only the right thing to do for the environment, there is also a clear business case for doing this.” We’re asking for information that could shed light on what influenced the proposed policy change.

Durham Investigation: On Friday, Senator John Cornyn tweeted that the Justice Department is investigating Biden as part of the ongoing probe led by U.S. Attorney John Durham. Durham has been looking into the origins of the U.S. counterintelligence investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials, a concerning example of the politicization of federal law enforcement agencies. The investigation of Biden was also mentioned in a White House memo earlier this week. We’re currently suing the Justice Department for related records — including any directives given to Durham.

Perry and Ukraine: We haven’t even mentioned Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s potential involvement in the Ukraine mess yet. According to news reports, Perry is expected to step down from his post in November, news that comes amid questions about the decision to have him lead the delegation to Ukraine for President Zelensky’s May inauguration, instead of Pence. We still want to know whether and to what extent Perry had any involvement in the efforts to pressure Ukraine, and filed additional FOIA requests this week for related communications. “If I were Rick Perry or anyone else in the administration, I’d be very careful about being honest right now,” American Oversight’s Evers told Politico.

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