Looking at the actions of the Trump administration over the past week, you wouldn’t know that the United States had entered a dangerous stage in the coronavirus pandemic, with new case records being broken multiple times and the map of the country blanketed in Covid-19 hotspots.
As the nation rapidly approaches 250,000 deaths, President Donald Trump is consumed with delegitimizing the election by pushing dangerous and unfounded claims about voter fraud. As hospitals approach capacity in multiple states — with North Dakota even allowing asymptomatic infected nurses to continue working — Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, announced he would be going on vacation to Florida. He shortly canceled those plans, reportedly not out of concern about the pandemic but to stay in Washington as Trump continues his desperate attempt to cast doubt on the election results.
Of course, Pence isn’t the only person abetting Trump’s dictatorial aspirations. On Monday, Attorney General William Barr issued a memo telling federal prosecutors that they were allowed to investigate voter fraud claims before the presidential election results are certified. Emily Murphy, the Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration, has refused to sign the memo that would allow President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team to begin their work. Republican lawmakers and state officials, including in Wisconsin and Arizona, have also echoed the unsubstantiated claims of Trump, his campaign, and the Republican National Committee by calling for investigations into alleged widespread voting irregularities. Weeks — in fact, years — of such allegations have never produced any evidence.
Meanwhile, the president’s longstanding efforts to purge the government of anybody considered insufficiently loyal to him have made a disturbing appearance at the Department of Defense. On Monday, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper over Twitter, initiating a rapid series of resignations and troubling appointments.
The new acting secretary is Christopher Miller, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and his chief of staff is Kash Patel, a former White House staffer who also worked for Rep. Devin Nunes. While working for Nunes, Patel authored the infamous 2018 memo accusing intelligence officials of anti-Trump bias — American Oversight has sued for his communications in our investigation of the politicization of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where he also recently worked.
Other Pentagon appointments that have sounded alarm bells include Anthony Tata as the department’s top policy official and Ezra Cohen-Watnick as undersecretary of defense for intelligence. Tata’s previous nomination for the position was given a bipartisan rejection by the Senate this summer after CNN unearthed Islamophobic and other offensive statements he’d made, including about former President Barack Obama.
In early 2017, Cohen-Watnick, an ally of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, was involved in providing intelligence materials to Nunes about the federal investigation of the Trump campaign. We’ve previously filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the calendars and communications of both Tata and Cohen-Watnick.
There are multiple possible explanations about what’s behind the firings and appointments at the Defense Department, from covering up politically charged information to finally pushing through actions previously opposed by Pentagon officials to the president’s simple pettiness. And Defense officials aren’t the only ones to have been shown the door since Biden was projected as the winner of the election. Top officials in other agencies have also been forced out, and CNN reported that John McEntee, the head of the Presidential Personnel Office who has been spearheading Trump’s loyalty purges since February, has been “spreading the word throughout the administration that if he hears of anyone looking for another job they will be fired.”
American Oversight is not letting up in our efforts to hold officials accountable or in our investigations of the president’s loyalty-obsessed firings. And this week, we began looking into the GSA’s interference with the presidential transition and launched an initiative to ensure the Trump administration complies with record preservation laws.
We also filed a series of records requests in Wisconsin and Arizona for the communications of state legislators seeking to elevate Trump’s baseless voter fraud claims. As the nation prepares for a new administration — despite the efforts of Trump and his allies — the election has put into stark relief the threats to Americans’ voting rights across the country. Trump has sought to exploit those weaknesses, and they won’t go away with his administration.
On the Records
The deadly pandemic is also not going away with Trump, just as it didn’t “just disappear” in the face of his administration’s botched response to the crisis. It will likely only get worse over the next two months if the current vacuum of federal leadership persists. Our Covid-19 Oversight Hub is not letting up on our scrutiny of the administration’s response.
American Oversight obtained records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that contain directives about CDC press outreach. They include a note that “the new HHS comms team wants to focus on local media” as well as explicit instructions not to entertain interview requests from political commentator Greta Van Susteren or anyone at Voice of America. They were previously published by the Knight Institute.
Who Got WHO’s Money?
We requested records from the CDC regarding the administration’s decision to halt millions of dollars in World Health Organization funding. The records show email threads regarding the planning of awards to the WHO through the end of the fiscal year, first sent a week before Trump announced he would stop the funding. They also show that CDC officials were out of the loop on related policy meetings and decisions. In August, after sending a FOIA request to find out whether that money had been sent elsewhere, we received a response from the CDC saying, “Funds originally planned for WHO have not been redirected to any entities.”
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