According to President Donald Trump, the federal government is merely a “backup” for states wrestling with frightening shortages of medical equipment and protective gear. In fact, he contends, governors critical of the administration’s mismanaged response to the coronavirus pandemic are just “complainers” with “insatiable appetites.”
Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that the president, who downplayed the crisis until just a few weeks ago, is once again avoiding taking responsibility. Two weeks ago, he famously told governors in need of ventilators, to save the lives of their residents, to “try getting it yourself.” And it took him till last week to finally invoke the Defense Production Act, which allows the administration to stimulate production of such essential equipment.
Despite Trump’s claims throughout February and early March that the coronavirus would be just like the seasonal flu, emails we obtained and published earlier this week show that federal health officials at that time were increasingly concerned about the outbreak. “[W]e have a relatively narrow window and we are flying blind,” wrote one official on Feb. 28, around the same time the president was insisting the number of cases would be dropping shortly.
Meanwhile, state governments are approaching and experiencing the crisis at different, albeit intensifying, speeds, and news reports have indicated that states are receiving unequal treatment in accessing federal resources. One White House official even said that Florida’s electoral importance added weight to the president’s considerations of the state’s needs. We filed a number of public records requests this week for communications between federal officials and governor’s offices in various states. Requests have gone to California and Ohio, which have had more robust responses to the crisis; New York, Michigan and Washington, which are currently experiencing more severe outbreaks; and Florida and Oklahoma, two states with Trump-allied governors who have lagged behind in their responses. We’ve also requested the spreadsheet, reportedly used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for tracking state requests and shipments, mentioned in this Washington Post article.
We also filed dozens of other coronavirus-related requests this week, with a number of them focused on the pandemic’s effects on the most vulnerable, from those in public housing to students affected by school closures, to the millions of Americans expected to lose workplace health-care coverage even as the Trump administration said it would not, as it had previously considered, reopen HealthCare.gov for new enrollments.
Of course, the other side of the question of who will be most harmed is who most stands to gain. The president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner — who addressed the nation about coronavirus on Thursday evening, saying the federal stockpile “was supposed to be our stockpile,” not the states’ — has reportedly taken a key role in the coronavirus response, and we want to know whether his personal business interests are also getting undue attention. We’ve asked for any briefing materials agencies have prepared for him about the outbreak, and also filed a number of Freedom of Information Act requests to shed light on the Trump administration’s negotiations with drug companies involved in developing vaccines and treatments.
Other FOIA requests we’ve filed in just the past week include:
Plus, we’re investigating Texas’s attempt to temporarily ban abortion during the pandemic — read more below:
Texas Abortion Ban: Two weeks ago, Gov. Greg Abbott announced an executive order requiring health-care providers to postpone all procedures — including abortions — “not immediately medically necessary.” We want to know how the governor and Texas attorney general arrived at their decision, including whether there was coordination with outside groups or the federal government.
FBI Headquarters Investigation: For more than a year, we’ve been investigating the president’s interference in the decision to rebuild the FBI headquarters at its existing location, which happens to sit just a few blocks from the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. We have a number of related lawsuits against the administration for records, including against the Office of Management and Budget, and this week a federal judge found that OMB hadn’t conducted an adequate search for records, and ordered the agency to conduct a new search.
Politicization of the 2020 Census: This week, we provided an update on our investigation into the rollout of the 2020 census, including the Trump administration’s failed effort to add a citizenship question. Among other requests, we’re seeking Census Bureau officials’ calendars as well as their communications with supporters of adding the question. We’ve also filed requests for communications with representatives of the Republican National Committee, which in February sent out mailers designed to look like official census documents. The Census Bureau delivers apportionment counts to the president and Congress in December, so stay tuned.
“Farm Bailout” Finances: Since 2018, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has provided farmers $28 billion in aid to soften the impact of Trump’s trade war with China. Critics of this “farm bailout” have raised questions about how the USDA is managing these funds, including how the agency handles subsidy authorizations and why payments have been made to foreign-owned corporations. We asked the USDA for records concerning this aid, including records reflecting meetings with or guidance from officials at the White House.
“Abortion Extremism”: In May 2019, FBI Counterterrorism Division Assistant Director Michael McGarrity testified before Congress that the FBI considered “abortion extremism” to be a form of domestic terrorism. More recently, FBI Director Christopher Wray stated that “abortion violent extremism” is now included in the agency’s categorization of terrorism efforts. We’re asking the FBI for communications containing key words related to abortion policy to shed light on the bureau’s decision.
Nigeria Travel Restrictions: In January, Trump added Nigeria to a list of countries whose citizens are banned from obtaining U.S. immigration visas. The Department of Homeland Security and State Department officials cited an elevated security risk in justifying the new travel restrictions, contradicting a prior statement by a government official that the decision was related to cases of Nigerian nationals overstaying their visas. The New York Times reported that Nigerian officials were “blindsided” by the policy, in part because of the existing security and information-sharing practices between the two countries. We filed FOIA requests with DHS and the State Department for records relating to these new travel restrictions.
U.S. Attorney Resigns after Revoked Nomination: In February, former U.S. Attorney Jessie Liu resigned from the Treasury Department after Trump withdrew her nomination to serve as undersecretary for terrorism and financial crimes. News reports suggest that Liu’s resignation and revoked nomination were related to Trump’s dissatisfaction with her work at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC — specifically, Liu’s perceived lack of involvement in politically sensitive investigations, including the cases of Trump ally Roger Stone and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. We filed requests with the Department of the Treasury for Liu’s resignation letter, and to the Justice Department for communications between Liu and White House officials.
Voting Restriction in Florida: For the past year, we’ve been following the progress of the restoration of voting rights to individuals in Florida with prior felony convictions. This week, we filed public records requests in multiple Florida counties for communications between election officials and voting-restriction activists or groups — some of which have advocated against returning voting rights to previously convicted Floridians. We’ve previously made similar requests in Texas and Georgia, and will continue to track voting-restriction efforts across the country.
New Civil Rights Official at USDA: In March, Devon Westhill was sworn in as the Agriculture Department’s assistant secretary for civil rights. Westhill previously worked at the Department of Labor and is a contributor to the Federalist Society. Last week, we asked both the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor for Westhill’s recent resume, as well as for any of his communications with conservative organizations, including the Federalist Society.
Part of Investigation: