News Roundup: Trump’s Enthusiastic Support for New Drug Raises Questions

(Photo: Gage Skidmore)

President Donald Trump has been outspoken in his support for a controversial new drug called Spravato, approved this past spring by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of depression. Two weeks after its approval, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that it would be available to veterans through VA health-care providers, and the president has repeatedly called on the department to make it widely available to veterans.

Trump has even offered to assist in negotiations with the drug’s manufacturer, Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, which last week was ordered to pay $572 million for its role in the opioid crisis. Janssen had previously promoted anti-suicide programs at the VA with the assistance of the same three members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club — Ike Perlmutter, Bruce Moskowitz and Marc Sherman — who have been dubbed the “shadow rulers of the VA” for their heavy-handed involvement in high-level VA policymaking. 

We’ve already been investigating the Mar-a-Lago trio’s influence at Veterans Affairs, and this week we began looking into whether outside influence has played a role in Spravato’s fast approval. We filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests with the FDA and the VA for communications with the president’s personal associates, Johnson & Johnson or the White House about the drug.

Here’s what else we’ve been looking into this week:

We’re Suing for Trump Investigation Witness Interviews: It was quietly revealed in July that the Justice Department had closed its investigation into the president’s potential campaign-finance violations. This is the same investigation that resulted in a guilty plea for former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, who assisted in making hush-money payments to women who claimed to have had affairs with the president. But the Justice Department has released little information about its decision to close an investigation of such significant public interest. We filed a lawsuit this week for related records, including interviews or statements from witnesses like Cohen.

ICE Detention Standards: A January DHS inspector general report on ICE detention contractors found “serious deficiencies such as significant understaffing, failure to provide sufficient mental health observation, and inadequate monitoring of detainees with criminal histories.” The report also noted that the inspector general had “no way of verifying whether any of these deficiencies have been corrected.” We filed multiple FOIA requests with Homeland Security for reports on discrepancies in ICE detention standards as well as for waivers that allow facilities to avoid compliance with specific standards.

Former Kushner Team Members: This spring, the Office of Government Ethics refused to certify the financial disclosure reports of former White House official Ira Greenstein, a family friend of Jared Kushner who had left the administration more than a year before. Another member of Kushner’s circle, Reed Cordish, also left the White House in early 2018, resuming his position with his family’s real-estate company. We’re asking multiple federal agencies for communications with Greenstein and Cordish to find out whether and to what extent they have exerted influence on federal policy in areas where they have personal and financial ties.

Profiting off the Presidency in Miami: In July, it was reported that the Trump administration was considering hosting next year’s G7 summit at the president’s Miami golf club, Trump National Doral, raising concerns that his private, for-profit company would financially benefit from a major international meeting. We filed FOIA requests with the State Department to find out how seriously this plan is being considered.

Profiting off the Presidency in Ireland: This week, Vice President Mike Pence visited Ireland for meetings in Dublin. So naturally, he stayed at the president’s golf club in Doonbeg, more than 150 miles away from the capital, requiring him to commute by plane. A Washington Post analysis found that during Trump’s presidency, on 7 of every 10 days a government official or political action committee has visited or spent money at a Trump property.

Alaska Mining Reversal: Despite opposition from fishermen, Alaska Natives, environmental experts, and even the Environmental Protection Agency itself, the Trump administration announced this summer that it would no longer oppose a proposed copper and gold mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The decision to advance the Pebble Mine project, which former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in 2014 said “would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries,” was conveyed to EPA staff scientists the day after Trump had met with Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy aboard Air Force One. We’re asking the EPA for top officials’ communications about Pebble Mine.

Driver’s License Discrimination: This summer, a Puerto Rican man sued Georgia’s Department of Driver Services for discrimination due to its practice of giving Puerto Rican driver’s-license applicants a quiz with trivia questions about the U.S. territory. The state said this week that it will no longer use the quiz, but we still have questions about the practice and have filed a Georgia open records request for related communications.

Trump Campaign: The 2020 election is nearly a year away, and with increased campaign activity comes the possibility for violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity while at work. American Oversight has been investigating whether the Trump administration has had a selective approach toward enforcing the Hatch Act, and this week filed FOIA requests across the administration for communications between administration officials and Trump’s re-election campaign or its supporting organizations.

Border Wall Funding: The Pentagon said that money for Trump’s border wall would be drawn from Defense Department projects like schools and daycares for military families and an ambulatory care center at Camp Lejeune. We’re investigating the potential for corruption that has increased with Trump’s desperation to deliver on one of his signature campaign promises.

New Documents

Immigration: We obtained records of emails between anti-immigration activists and DHS officials about family separation. The documents also include concerns over lack of proper language assistance for asylum-seekers and over allegations of children with disabilities being separated from parents without proper care.

Infrastructure: Emails between the White House Council on Environmental Quality and congressional staff include communications with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s staff about the timing of Trump’s February 2018 infrastructure plan rollout.

Texas Voting Rights: We also published records of meetings that officials in the Texas attorney general’s office had with voter-fraud activists, including Catherine Engelbrecht of the Tea Party-affiliated group True the Vote and Donald Palmer, a former Virginia elections official whom Trump put on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

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