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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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