News Roundup: What We Can Learn from Trump Administration Calendars

Cabinet officials’ schedules can tell the public a lot about the administration’s priorities and its practices. American Oversight has pored through thousands of pages of official calendars, uncovering questionable meetings with lobbyists and outside groups, and identifying new points of investigation.

Department of Health and Human Services: We obtained the calendars of HHS Secretary Alex Azar and of Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan, who served as acting secretary in late 2017 and early 2018. The calendars show multiple meetings with anti–abortion rights groups and other conservative organizations opposed to the Affordable Care Act. With the administration’s recently issued new rule restricting groups that provide abortions or abortion referrals from receiving federal family planning funds, we’ve been investigating the role these outside groups may have played in shaping policy.

Department of Education: In February, Politico reported that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos attended a “fireside chat” at the Club for Growth Foundation’s winter retreat, which was closed to the press. The Club for Growth supported DeVos’ confirmation in 2017, and on its website says that it aims to “close down the U.S. Department of Education and end the federal government’s role in education.” American Oversight has filed Freedom of Information Act requests for records that show whether the Club for Growth is influencing federal education policy.

Department of Commerce: American Oversight also obtained Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ 2017 calendars, which reveal multiple meetings that present potential conflicts of interest with his vast and complex web of financial holdings. This week, NPR and the Center for Public Integrity co-published a story on the difficulty of investigating the finances of a billionaire cabinet secretary. The story features a photo of the whiteboard we have been using to piece together just one part of his network of holdings.

On Friday, American Oversight filed a new lawsuit for records of Ross’ meetings with industry officials, including those from Chevron and Boeing, as well as communications Commerce officials may have had with entities listed on Ross’ ethics agreements.

Department of Labor: And finally, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta’s 2017 calendars, which we obtained, show repeated engagement on immigration issues. Acosta met with White House officials like Senior Adviser Stephen Miller and former adviser Steve Bannon, as well as with then–Homeland Security Acting Secretary Elaine Duke and with Customs and Immigration Services Director Francis Cissna. American Oversight is asking for records from these meetings to determine the nature of the Labor Department’s involvement in the administration’s immigration policy.

As Donald Trump made his trip to Hanoi and as former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen visited the House Oversight Committee, here’s what else we’ve been up to this week:

  • Last year, American Oversight began investigating reports of the administration’s retaliation against career employees perceived to be not sufficiently loyal to the president. Mari Stull, a former lobbyist and wine blogger who recently left her post as a State Department political appointee, had allegedly been reviewing employees’ social media for evidence of disloyalty. We requested records of her communications with the White House, eventually taking the State Department to court to force the release of records that could contain evidence of Stull’s retaliation efforts. In a court proceeding today, the department said that it has potentially found more than 500 records related to such communications. This estimate doesn’t include email attachments, and the department is conducting further searches for more records. Stay tuned.
  • In September 2018, Brock Long, then the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was found to have used more than $150,000 in government resources, including FEMA employees and government vehicles, for unauthorized transportation to work. Long and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen issued a join statement that Long would reimburse the federal government, with Long saying that he would “accept full responsibility for any mistakes that were made by me or the agency.” Long announced his resignation last month, and American Oversight has submitted FOIA requests to DHS and the Treasury to find out whether Long fulfilled his promise.
  • During the exceptionally cold stretch of days in late January, the federal Brooklyn Metropolitan Detention Center experienced a prolonged power outage, resulting in a dangerous lack of heat for inmates. Problems in providing adequate heat reportedly began weeks before the crisis made news, and American Oversight is seeking records to determine what action the Department of Justice took to remedy the inhumane conditions at the detention center.
  • A few weeks ago, American Oversight submitted FOIA requests for communications between officials and employees or representatives of Ballard Partners, the lobbying firm helmed by top Trump campaign fundraiser Brian Ballard. Lobbying disclosure forms indicate that Ballard Partners has been lobbying the Department of Homeland Security, but this week DHS responded to our FOIA request by saying it had no records of Ballard communications with political appointees.
  • Michael Cohen appeared before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, offering testimony highly critical of the president, whom Cohen said was “racist,” a “con man,” and a “cheat.” Rep. Mark Meadows brought in HUD official Lynne Patton, who is black, to stand next to him as evidence that the charge of racism was unfounded, a stunt that was highly criticized. But for the most part, Republicans focused little on the president, primarily attempting to discredit Cohen based on his conviction for previously lying to Congress. American Oversight’s Molly Claflin breaks down a list other members of Trump’s circle who could be in danger if prosecutors continue to signal an interest in prosecuting people for lying to Congress — including Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Jeff Sessions.