News Roundup: Trump Administration’s Defiance of Congressional Subpoenas

The fallout from the Mueller report, which was released last Friday, continued through this week, with President Donald Trump alternating between declaring victory and railing against the report’s conclusions on Twitter.

An analysis by Reuters found that criticism of the investigation, which looked into foreign election interference and obstruction of justice by the president, has centered on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s decision to decline to make a call on the question of obstruction, and on Mueller having failed to interview Trump under oath.

While Congress should, according to precedent set by Republican lawmakers, see the investigation’s underlying evidence, the report itself does provide a “roadmap” for congressional investigation. Barr is scheduled to testify before Congress about the report next Wednesday and Thursday. According to news reports Barr also ordered Justice Department official John Gore to defy a congressional subpoena to testify in a House committee’s investigation of the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census (see below).

This isn’t the first congressional subpoena ignored by the Trump administration: On Tuesday, White House Personnel Security Director Carl Kline didn’t show for a scheduled deposition either. The House Oversight and Reform Committee had subpoenaed Kline in early April as part of its investigation of security clearances granted to Jared Kushner and others over the objections of career personnel.

Committee Chair Elijah Cummings said that he plans to schedule a vote on holding Kline in contempt of Congress, though as American Oversight Chief Counsel John Bies noted in an interview with CNN, “There’s no clear, simple, easy enforcement mechanism because it has depended on institutional relationships for so long.” By refusing to even negotiate in good faith with congressional investigators, Trump and his administration are signalling their lack of respect for constitutional checks and balances and Congress’ oversight authority as a co-equal branch of government. “The system has never really been tested this way,” Bies added.

Census Citizenship Question: This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case about the citizenship question. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ 2017 calendars show numerous meetings related to the census, and in October we joined the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in filing a lawsuit to uncover records related to the Justice Department’s role in the decision to add the question, which could deter many from filling out the questionnaire. According to reports, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority looks poised to allow the question’s inclusion. This week, we filed a FOIA request to the Census Bureau for the resumes, ethics disclosures, and calendars of political appointees and other top officials at the bureau.

Climate-Skeptic Energy Advisers: Late last year, the Trump administration installed new energy advisers who had a track record of fossil fuel promotion and climate change denial. We filed FOIA requests for communications between those advisers — Wells Griffith, Francis Brooke, and Brooke Rollins — and officials at the EPA and the Departments of Energy and the Interior, to learn more about how the administration’s energy policy is being shaped by climate skeptics and industry proponents. In fact, just this week the White House removed language from a draft EPA guidance document stating that climate change leads to extreme weather.

Border Security Plan: In December, DHS sent Congress a risk-based plan for improving border security, as required by the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act, but the plan still has not been made public. Since then, Trump has declared a national emergency over border wall funding and at least $1 billion from the Pentagon’s budget has been shifted to fund fencing. This week, along with the ACLU of Massachusetts, we sued DHS for the security plan to learn more about the department’s true assessment of the security situation along the border.

USDA Lawsuit: We also sued the Department of Agriculture this week for Secretary Sonny Perdue’s ethics disclosures as well as his communications with outside industry. The lawsuit also seeks communications between senior USDA political appointees and the office of Perdue’s cousin, U.S. Senator David Perdue, and was filed after the department failed to produce requested records from two FOIA requests.

Canceled Coal Study: In 2017, the Department of the Interior abruptly canceled a study on the health effects of coal mining in central Appalachia that the National Academy of Sciences had begun the previous year. We filed a FOIA request for Interior communications about the study to find out whether and to what extent it was canceled for political reasons.

EnVision Centers: According to NBC News, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s signature initiative — the creation of “EnVision Centers” — has faltered due to lack of funds, no dedicated staffing, and mismanagement, with few such community centers actually having opened. We’re asking HUD for agency officials’ communications about EnVision Centers as well as records identifying all operating centers and their partner organization.

Interior Investigations: The Interior Department’s inspector general is investigating whether six Trump appointees violated federal ethics rules by engaging with former employers or clients on official business. Sound familiar? That’s because the inspector general is also investigating Secretary David Bernhardt for ethics complaints. Last month, we filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department to force the release of records of Bernhardt’s ethics waivers and his communications with former clients (he has a lot of them from his days as an oil and gas lobbyist).

DHS’ Civil Rights Office: The administration’s anti-immigration stance continues to escalate. Last week, after Attorney General Barr issued an order directing immigration judges to deny some migrants a chance to post bail, the Trump administration said it plans to build two new tent cities for detaining migrant families who are waiting to make their asylum cases in court. And this week, a draft proposal from DHS indicates that the department is considering a plan to bypass immigration courts to speed up deportations of some undocumented immigrants, and the Pentagon is preparing to expand its role along the southern border. American Oversight launched an investigation of DHS’ Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL), asking for records of recommendations CRCL made to Immigration and Customs Enforcement about civil rights issues in ICE detention facilities. We’ve also asked for records related to CRCL’s investigation of suicides occurring in DHS custody, communications with outside entities about detention standards, and the calendars of top CRCL officials.

Women’s Leadership and World Wrestling: In her ethics agreement, Linda McMahon, the former administrator of the Small Business Administration (and co-founder of World Wrestling Entertainment), had said she would resign from her management position at Women’s Leadership Live, a company aimed at supporting women in business. Despite this pledge, McMahon continued to be featured on the company’s website, in its social media, and at events. We’re asking for her ethics determinations and her communications with groups or individuals associated with Women’s Leadership Live. We also sent a FOIA request for her office’s communications with WWE and McMahon Ventures, in which she and her husband Vince both own significant stakes.