Open Questions About President Trump’s Abuses of Office

Our efforts to expose President Donald Trump’s misconduct and abuses of power have shed light on unprecedented financial conflicts and alarming attacks on democracy, but we remain committed to uncovering more information about his time in office. In this post, we’ve catalogued some of the most important things we’ve uncovered about Trump’s actions in office — and what we’re still trying to find out.  

Trump Abuse of Presidential Powers

Trump’s penchant for using presidential powers for his own personal or political gain has been well documented. He has deployed his clemency powers to pardon or commute the sentences of political allies and has exerted pressure on the Justice Department in ways that have threatened its independence — from calling for investigations of his political rivals to pushing for an authoritarian response to racial justice protests across the country. He has also demanded unwavering personal loyalty from government employees, unleashing a wave of purges following his questionable acquittal by the Senate in his impeachment trial.

Responses to American Oversight’s Freedom of Information Act requests and litigation have shed light on many of these instances. For example, we released documents showing the Office of the Pardon Attorney, the part of the Justice Department that helps vet clemency petitions, scrambling to respond to Trump’s 2018 pardon of former George W. Bush aide Scooter Libby. Other records provided additional information about the Justice Department leadership’s highly irregular intervention in criminal cases against Trump associates Roger Stone and Michael Flynn, who both faced charges stemming from investigations into foreign election interference. (Trump commuted Stone’s sentence in July 2020 and pardoned him in December, and pardoned Flynn in November.) We also uncovered emails related to his post-impeachment purges of government officials perceived as being insufficiently loyal to the president.

We still want to know:
    • How have agencies responded to Trump’s issuance of pardons, and who was involved? Media reports suggested Trump has considered doling out pardons to friends and family en masse, and he has already handed them to political allies and mercenaries convicted of killing civilians. In March 2020, we also sued for records from a reported pardons advisory task force led by Jared Kushner. 
    • How did the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Defense respond to Trump’s insistence on a militarized response to nationwide protests against police brutality? From the use of force against peaceful protests in front of the White House in June 2020 and the president’s calls for military intervention, to the politicized Operation Legend and deployment of federal police to cities across the country, the administration has responded to demonstrations with anti-democratic and aggressive tactics. In August, we obtained a letter from the Secret Service to the head of Customs and Border Protection asking for reinforcements including a helicopter “capable of delivering airborne quick reaction force,” and we want to know more about alarming uses of federal force.

Trump’s Pandemic Failures

The Covid-19 pandemic has left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead. Many of those deaths could have been prevented had the president taken the virus seriously from the beginning. Trump instead chose to repeatedly downplay the risk the virus posed to Americans, even acknowledging this himself in early 2020 in taped interviews with journalist Bob Woodward, which were released in September.

Trump continued to flout medical advice about the importance of masks in limiting the spread of Covid-19, setting a deadly example for his supporters across the country and contributing to a White House outbreak that culminated in Trump himself catching Covid-19. (He recovered after receiving state-of-the-art care inaccessible to many Americans.)

American Oversight is keeping a close watch on these failings through our Covid-19 Oversight Hub. We have uncovered documents showing a cozy relationship between the White House and private-sector actors working on pandemic response as well as details about the White House’s efforts to control messaging across the government in the early months of the crisis — including its heavy-handed approach to Department of Health and Human Services communications.

In addition, Trump’s aggressive campaigning led to numerous large and often indoor events where few wore masks. We obtained records showing that health officials in Tulsa, Okla., had warned that the president’s ill-advised June 18 rally
would directly lead to up to nine initial deaths.

We still want to know:
  • How has the White House’s pandemic response left more Americans at risk? Public reports suggest that political considerations — namely, Trump’s fixation on his reelection campaign — were put above public health outcomes, so we’ve submitted a variety of requests to multiple agencies for records of communications with the White House about the pandemic. 
  • What were the full details and timeline of Trump’s Covid-19 illness? Questions remain about Trump’s testing procedures when he was infected with Covid-19 in September 2020 and whether the White House put others at risk through sheer negligence. We’ve filed a number of requests seeking more information about his care, including information about non-disclosure agreements that his medical team was reportedly required to sign. 
  • To what extent were officials warned about the dire risks of hosting large events, from indoor campaign rallies to White House parties?

Trump’s Solicitation of Foreign Election Interference

Even before his election, Trump openly welcomed the interference of foreign powers in U.S. elections. In July 2016, he publicly called for Russian help targeting emails of his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — a call Russian hackers appeared to oblige. Once elected, Trump worked to undermine the investigation of foreign interference in that election. He dubbed the inquiries a “witch hunt” and in 2020 pardoned supporters like Stone and Flynn who faced criminal charges relating to obstructing those investigations.

Trump’s apparent solicitations of foreign government interference continued into the 2020 campaign cycle. Trump was impeached by the House in late 2019 for withholding congressionally approved aid to Ukraine in an effort to pressure that country’s leadership into investigating his 2020 rival Joe Biden. The Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump in a near party-line vote in February 2020. 

We obtained Department of Defense emails indicating that the “final decision” to withhold the Ukraininan aid rested with Trump alone, contradicting White House claims about the reason for the holdup. We also obtained State Department records showing that Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani’s assistant leveraged White House channels to connect with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the spring of 2019, amid the smear campaign against U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch — as well as records showing that Barr met with Giuliani multiple times in 2019.

We still want to know:
  • Did Trump and the White House direct key agencies to obstruct the impeachment inquiry? In early 2020, Rep. Adam Schiff indicated that intelligence agencies were withholding documents relevant to the impeachment inquiry, and we’re suing to uncover the truth. 
  • To what extent did Trump’s key allies enable his corrupt dealings with Ukraine? We’re seeking records to shed light on how much other members of the administration, including Barr and Vice President Mike Pence, knew about the quid pro quos at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

Trump Properties Spending

Trump’s businesses in the real-estate and hospitality sectors represent an unprecedented financial conflict of interest for a sitting president, one that remained unresolved throughout his tenure despite outcries from the public and from ethics watchdogs. Secret Service stays at Trump-owned golf resorts are a regular (and expensive) occurrence, and the Trump International Hotel, which occupies government property in Washington, D.C., has proved to be a top destination for exchanging political favors and lining the president’s pockets.

American Oversight’s investigations have shown that federal agencies lacked any guidance for employees related to spending taxpayer money at Trump properties. We also identified large expenses by the billionaire U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, Woody Johnson, at Trump’s Scottish golf resort — Johnson spent more than £1,000 (nearly $1,300) there in a single day while visiting in July 2018. And in 2019, we obtained records of Trump World Tower leases to foreign governments that were approved by the State Department, raising questions about violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause.

We still want to know:
  • How much money has the federal government spent at Trump’s properties during his presidency? A total of how many taxpayer dollars have gone to Trump’s businesses is still hard to track, but we’ve filed requests at dozens of agencies to try to figure it out. 
  • How much have other countries spent at Trump properties in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the president or influence foreign policy? This applies not just to foreign dignitaries visiting the U.S., but to Trump Organization properties in other countries. In 2019, we filed a lawsuit for U.S. embassy communications regarding those foreign properties that may shed more light on the issue. 
  • What was Trump’s personal involvement in scrapping a plan to relocate the FBI headquarters from its current location just blocks away from his hotel? The move, and the reported interference by the White House, raised serious questions about whether the decision was made to avoid opening the site to potential competition.
  • Were there any guardrails placed on the potential sale of the Trump International Hotel to prevent further violations of the emoluments clause or to prevent business interests exerting undue influence on the Trump administration? While plans for the sale are currently paused, American Oversight sent requests to the General Services Administration and the Justice Department for communications or legal guidance about the potential sale.

Trump’s Attacks on the Legitimacy of the Election
Trump’s attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 election began long before he lost it. In public appearances in the runup to the election, he regularly made false claims about voting by mail being susceptible to large-scale fraud, and even tweeted about the possibility of delaying the election. Once it was clear that President-elect Joe Biden had won, Trump made wildly unfounded allegations about the election being rigged. 

American Oversight previously represented Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap in his lawsuit compelling the release of records from Trump’s Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, of which Dunlap was a member. Those records revealed that the Trump-aligned members of the commission were preparing to issue broad findings of “voter fraud issues,” but had failed to come up with any evidence supporting their desired conclusion. 

While the commission disbanded in early 2018, it served as a blueprint for similar state-level task forces seeking to push the same false narratives under the guise of “election integrity” concerns. American Oversight has been investigating state-level attacks on voting rights, including uncovering  communications between state election officials and voting-restriction activists in Florida, Georgia, and Texas. 

We still want to know:
  • What did Trump’s Justice Department tell federal prosecutors about pursuing and publicizing “voter fraud” allegations in the lead up to the 2020 election? We’re seeking directives sent to U.S. attorneys about investigations into voter fraud, as well as communications about a DOJ press release on a later-debunked story about the alleged disposal of nine ballots in Pennsylvania.
  • Did the Trump administration stifle the release of information about foreign actors attempting to interfere in our elections? In the late summer 2020, the administration eliminated in-person briefings for Congress related to election interference, and in October, lawmakers asked the Department of Homeland Security to release an unclassified analysis that showed a foreign actor was attempting to undermine faith in the U.S. election system. We’re requesting that analysis
  • What happened in the firing of DHS cybersecurity chief Chris Krebs by Trump in the days following the 2020 election? Krebs was fired in apparent retaliation for confirming the security of the election, and we’re seeking related records.
  • What role did the president and the White House play in the delay of the ascertainment of presidential transition, and did he direct loyalists in the administration not to cooperate with the transfer of power? General Services Administration head Emily Murphy didn’t authorize President-elect Joe Biden’s team’s use of government resources until weeks after the election, and was publicly praised by Trump during that time.