News Roundup: Turning to the Courts

The Trump administration has proved uniquely uncooperative with Congress’ requests, leading House committees this week to vote to authorize a series of high-profile subpoenas related to the 2020 census, White House security clearances, and the Mueller report.

Subpoenas give teeth to congressional requests for documents and testimony by providing lawmakers with the ability to seek a court order forcing the administration to comply. Committee Chairs Elijah Cummings’ and Jerry Nadler’s decision to flex these subpoena powers is a signal that the usual accommodations process — the negotiation between the executive and legislative branches over what can be shared — has broken down. And a major reason for this breakdown is the Trump administration’s lack of respect for checks and balances and the constitutional necessity of congressional oversight. American Oversight’s Austin Evers and Molly Claflin outline how this is particularly apparent in the security-clearance issue, in which the White House has argued that the Oversight and Reform Committee has no right to the requested information.

Besides the security-clearance subpoenas, the Oversight Committee also authorized a set related to the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. This includes a subpoena for Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who proposed the question’s inclusion despite having initially said the request came from the Justice Department (American Oversight has a lawsuit for records related to the department’s role in the decision). And the Judiciary Committee voted to subpoena Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s full report (we also filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the report, as well as for communications about Attorney General William Barr’s summary). Of course, the Trump administration’s posture indicates that it may intend to fight Congress’ requests, setting up a potentially slow-moving battle in the courts on a range of issues, including how far the judicial branch will go to enforce transparency and accountability.

Meanwhile, the administration has had a profound impact on the actual composition of the federal judiciary, with a record number of judges nominated by President Trump having been confirmed by the Senate under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The selection of those nominees was greatly influenced by outside groups and individuals, namely Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society and John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation. American Oversight filed a lawsuit this week to learn more about the extent of the administration’s outsourcing of this process to ideological outsiders. Another American Oversight lawsuit got a major win earlier this week, when a federal judge rejected the administration’s argument for withholding communications with Congress from 2017 about plans for weakening the Affordable Care Act.

As if that’s not enough, here’s what else has been going on this week:

Bernhardt’s Nomination Advances: On Thursday, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted to send to the Senate floor Acting Secretary David Bernhardt’s nomination to be the permanent head of the Interior Department. This advancement happened the same week as news reports that would ordinarily be considered damaging: Interior’s inspector general said that it was investigating Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel industry lobbyist, for having possibly violated his ethics pledge by working on a decision that ended up benefiting a former client. Then the New York Times reported that Bernhardt had continued lobbying for that same client months after he had filed official papers saying he’d stopped. And another report said that Bernhardt’s former lobbying firm had quadrupled its business since Bernhardt joined the administration as deputy interior secretary in 2017.

Boeing Safety Certification: On Thursday, the Ethiopian government released its preliminary report on the March plane crash that killed 157 people, finding that the pilots had followed all the Boeing-recommended procedures when the plane started to dive. It’s not just Boeing that has faced questions about the safety of the flight-control system on its 737 Max 8; last week, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration defended the safety certification process of the plane before a Senate subcommittee. According to the Seattle Times, engineers involved in the original safety analysis of the system said that the analysis had “several crucial flaws.” We filed FOIA requests with the FAA, the Transportation Department, NASA, and the National Transportation Safety Board for communications and records about the plane and its flight-control system. 

Liberty University’s Pentagon Contract: A few months after Trump’s inauguration, a company owned by Liberty University, where Trump supporter Jerry Falwell Jr. is president, signed a $900,000 contract to sell jet fuel to the Defense Department. According to the Daily Beast, which first reported on the deal, the company, Freedom Aviation, had never previously won a federal fuel contract. We filed FOIA requests with the Pentagon’s Defense Logistics Agency for communications with Liberty University, Falwell, or Freedom Aviation, as well as communications about those entities.

Mnuchin’s Ties to Russian Oligarch: Back in December, the Treasury Department told Congress it would be ending sanctions on multiple entities associated with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Deripaska had ties to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and the sanctions were imposed in 2018 in response to Russia’s 2016 election interference. Since then, it was reported that the deal to lift the sanctions had been considerably less harsh than the administration had made it out to be. Compounding many observers’ suspicions is the fact that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin allegedly has had business dealings with an associate of Deripaska. We’re asking for communications that Mnuchin’s office had with or about groups and individuals associated with Deripaska, as well as Mnuchin’s ethics determinations regarding his involvement in sanctions policy.

Where Are the Harriet Tubman $20 Bills?: During his presidential campaign, Trump disparaged the Obama administration’s plans to include Harriet Tubman on redesigned $20 bills, and there has been no update on the redesign plans since Mnuchin said more than a year ago that Treasury had not “made any decisions.” We filed FOIA requests for records about the department’s plans (or lack thereof).

Investigating Trump’s Real-Estate Friends: Tom Barrack, Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth are longtime associates of the president who are reported to have substantial influence in the Trump administration. LeFrak and Roth led a short-lived infrastructure council, and Barrack headed Trump’s inaugural committee. (In February, ProPublica reported that Barrack’s company, Colony, developed a plan to profit off its administration connections.) None of the three holds an official government position and therefore have not been subject to official ethics requirements. American Oversight has asked the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Housing Finance Agency for communications with the three men, who are all involved in real-estate investment and development.

Shutting Down Science: During the record-long government shutdown in December and January, many scientific and public safety projects were forced to grind to a halt because of funding lapses. We’ve sent FOIA requests to agencies across the federal government for information about any program holdups, including regarding EPA environmental inspections, FDA food inspections, and other research or scientific projects.

Ivanka and the Trump Hotel: The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., continues to stand as a monument to Donald Trump’s financial conflicts of interest and his continued ability to profit off the presidency. The hotel is located in the government-owned Old Post Office Pavilion, and in January the inspector general of the General Services Administration found that the agency had ignored the Constitution in continuing to lease the building to Trump after the 2016 election. Ivanka Trump is reportedly a key negotiator for the Trump Organization, and we’re asking the GSA for communications that officials had with the president’s oldest daughter (including with those personal email accounts she should not be using for government business).

Denying Housing Loans for DREAMers: In December, Buzzfeed reported that HUD had been denying Federal Housing Administration-backed loans to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients. Although there was no formal announcement of a change in policy, multiple lenders said that HUD officials told them the department would not insure loans for DACA recipients. We want to know whether and to what extent these denials represented formal HUD policy or practice.

FOIAs with the USDA: We’re continuing our investigation of Hatch Act enforcement across the administration, including at the USDA, and we also filed a set of requests for records related to Department of Agriculture political appointees who previously worked as state legislators — we’re asking for their communications with former campaign contributors from the agricultural sector to see whether those donors have had influence over the appointees’ work.