Americans deserve answers to important questions about the conduct of key members of President Donald Trump’s administration.
American Oversight’s work exposing misconduct and abuse of power have already shed light on serious problems — from conflicts of interest at the Departments of Education and Agriculture to the attorney general’s politicization of the Justice Department — but we remain committed to uncovering the truth for the public. In this post, we’ve catalogued some of the most important things we’ve uncovered about top administration figures — and what we’re still trying to find out.
Attorney General William Barr’s administration of the Justice Department will have long-lasting implications for the integrity of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies. American Oversight’s investigations have already uncovered key information about how Barr has served the president’s political interests over those of the American people.
For example, our Freedom of Information Act litigation revealed that Barr was heavily involved in federal prosecutor John Durham’s probe into the origins of the Russia investigation — handpicking an assistant for Durham and meeting with him 18 times in the seven months after Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation ended.
Another American Oversight records request showed that Barr personally met with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and former U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy in the summer and fall of 2019 — apparently regarding a Venezuelan client — just a month before the impeachment inquiry was announced. Visitor logs from 2019 and 2020 obtained by American Oversight indicate Barr also met with Tom Fitton, Fox News host Laura Ingraham, conservative judicial adviser Leonard Leo, and White House official Kash Patel, among others.
We still want to know:
- Is Barr spreading information that undermines faith in voting by mail? Barr recently cited false data to assert that elections relying on mailed ballots have had substantial fraud, which the Justice Department claimed was due to an incorrect briefing memo. We’ve requested that memo.
- What role did Barr play in the federal government’s authoritarian and aggressive response to nationwide racial justice protests this summer? In early June, Barr reportedly ordered the removal of peaceful protesters near the White House, who were charged at and driven away with chemical irritants. We’ve filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department for any of Barr’s directives on this issue as well as information on all federal police forces deployed to cities across the country.
- What do internal whistleblowers say about the attorney general’s conduct? Barr has inappropriately intervened in criminal cases against associates of the president, and has made public statements about the progress of ongoing politically sensitive investigations. We’re suing for any complaints lodged with the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General or its Office of Professional Responsibility regarding Barr’s conduct as attorney general.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is one of the longest-serving and most influential figures in the Trump administration — and his personal and political actions during his tenure raise many questions.
We know from previous American Oversight investigations that his unusual request for military housing as secretary of state set off legal alarm bells and that a whistleblower had filed a complaint alleging that top officials at the agency turned a blind eye to Pompeo’s misconduct.
Responses to American Oversight’s record requests also showed Pompeo had direct communication with Rudy Giuliani in March 2019, when Giuliani was orchestrating his smear campaign against U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and pushing for investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son — activities that figured prominently in the president’s 2020 impeachment.
We still want to know:
- Did Pompeo urge President Trump to fire State Department Inspector General Steve Linick because Linick was investigating Pompeo or his close aides? News reports indicate the department’s internal watchdog was, at the time of his firing, investigating Pompeo aides’ potential misconduct as well as the secretary’s use of an emergency declaration to sell arms to Saudi Arabia.
- What role is the secretary’s wife, Susan Pompeo, playing at the Department of State? Reporting has highlighted her involvement in hosting politically tinged taxpayer-funded “Madison Dinners” as well as her participation in official overseas travel during a government shutdown.
- Did Pompeo use taxpayer resources to arrange his Republican National Convention speech? Pompeo shattered longstanding norms of secretaries of state avoiding domestic politics when he prerecorded a speech for the political convention while on official travel to Israel — we want to know how it came about and if public funds were used.
- Despite multiple FOIA requests and lawsuits, the State Department has still not released a single email known to have been sent by Pompeo. We have, however, obtained emails he sent using a personal account while director of the CIA, raising serious questions about the secretary’s commitment to transparency as well as the preservation of official records.
Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump
President Trump’s daughter and son-in-law are White House officials who occupy positions of significant power with little relevant experience. Their roles merit oversight so that the public can understand their level of influence — and know whether they are carrying out duties in compliance with the law.
In 2018, the White House, in reviewing records sought by American Oversight through FOIA litigation, found that Ivanka Trump had sent hundreds of emails using a personal account, revealing that her improper email practices were some of the most pervasive among the multiple administration officials who’ve conducted government business over private email.
Meanwhile, despite his lack of expertise, Kushner has been granted an extensive portfolio of issues to work on. We have also kept an eye on his role in the mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis. Kushner has held a wide-ranging role in the administration’s pandemic response, including leading a bungled testing effort and a mismanaged scramble for personal protective equipment and medical supplies. Records we uncovered show Jared forwarding an email calling face masks a “silver bullet” against Covid-19 back in May, yet Jared is rarely seen wearing a mask and October saw the White House reeling from an outbreak within its walls.
We still want to know:
- Are Ivanka Trump and Kushner complying with record preservation laws? We are requesting more details about Ivanka Trump’s email use as well as information about Jared Kushner’s reported use of WhatsApp — a messenger feature with an encryption option — to conduct official business, including with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, per the Guardian.
- How has Kushner shaped U.S. foreign policy? We have a records request out to the State Department about a U.S.-Russia reconciliation plan provided to former Secretary Rex Tillerson by Kushner, which according to Special Counsel Mueller’s report, was originally provided to Kushner by individuals with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Plus, we’re suing for records related to multiple trips Kushner took with State Department officials in 2019.
- What’s the full extent of the couple’s role in the Covid-19 pandemic response? American Oversight has a number of outstanding FOIA requests about everything from the emails and non-disclosure agreements of people on Kushner’s volunteer team to Ivanka Trump’s role in distributing food boxes that contained letters featuring President Trump’s signature.
Mitch McConnell and Elaine Chao
American Oversight has already helped answer a number of questions about whether the offices of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, have coordinated to give Kentucky-specific requests a boost.
For example, as Politico reported, we uncovered emails and calendars showing that Chao set up a special track within her office for requests coming from their home state of Kentucky or from the office of her husband.
In June 2019, the New York Times published an extensive investigation into Chao’s efforts on behalf of her family’s shipping company, Foremost Group, referencing emails we obtained showing that her office helped arrange a capitol tour for visiting Chinese government officials. We also published official calendars showing a private photo session at the Department of Transportation in which Chao and her father posed with Foremost employees.
We still want to know:
- Did Chao intervene to steer Transportation Department funds to specific Kentucky projects? The Government Accountability Office found that the process behind a 2018 $67 million grant to a Kentucky project lacked “the assurance of fairness.” We’ve submitted a number of FOIA requests seeking records surrounding the decision-making on that grant and other large DOT grants to Kentucky projects.
- Why did the Treasury Department lift sanctions on a Russian oligarch linked to a new aluminum plant in Kentucky? We’re suing the Treasury for communications around the lifting of sanctions on Oleg Deripaska, who was affiliated with a company that had announced a major new investment in McConnell’s home state.
- Why did the administration dismiss the Department of Transportation’s internal watchdog in May? We’re waiting for responses to several record requests related to the president’s firing of acting Inspector General Mitchell Behm, and are asking for information about Behm’s replacement, Howard “Skip” Elliott.
White House Senior Adviser Stephen MIller is an architect and advocate of some of the administration’s harshest anti-immigrant policies. We have filed more than 70 FOIA requests related to Miller’s influence and are still waiting to hear about dozens of them.
Miller reportedly often relies on phone calls rather than emails to avoid leaving a more substantial paper trail. But we’ve combed through thousands of pages of public records and have put together a timeline that helps trace his extensive reach within the administration.
American Oversight requests have also uncovered documents that detail how Miller operates. For example, emails with officials at the Department of Justice and Immigration and Customs Enforcement show how he uses internal agency allies to promote his efforts, sometimes sidestepping the agency’s leadership.
We still want to know:
- What was Miller’s role in setting up asylum restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic? The Trump administration abruptly halted processing of asylum claims at U.S. borders in March, claiming broad emergency public health powers. Miller had previously unsuccessfully pushed for using that authority with other diseases even before the pandemic, according to New York Times.
- Was Miller involved in efforts by allies inside the administration and at outside groups to push for an end to birthright citizenship? Trump had suggested he wanted to end birthright citizenship in a 2018 interview with Axios, and we’ve requested any communications about the issue sent by a senior adviser and Miller ally at Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
- Did Miller push anti-immigrant policies at the Department of Education? We’re seeking records related to number of issues, including restrictions that exclude undocumented and international students from accessing Covid-19 relief.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ connections to for-profit college and charter schools raise questions about her management of the department as well as serious conflicts of interest.
For example, American Oversight requests already uncovered emails showing that a top aide was working closely with officials at a failing for-profit college corporation as two of its schools lost accreditation, even as those schools misled students about their accreditation status and the Education Department continued to grant those students loans. We’ve also uncovered pro-charter school bias in the resumes of Department of Education officials.
American Oversight also investigated DeVos’s many unexcused absences early in her tenure, finding that during her first few months on the job, DeVos put in a full day’s work just two-thirds of the time during and took frequent long weekends — as well as spending taxpayer money at DeVos family properties.
We still want to know:
- How did DeVos influence her agency’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic? We’ve submitted a number of requests about the dispersal of CARES Act funds and the department’s communications with the White House about Covid-19, and are looking into whether the agency pushed to open in-person schooling before it was safe.
- Under DeVos’ leadership, to what extent has the Education Department weakened civil rights enforcement? Initial responses to records requests shed light on those efforts, but we need more information to understand the full scope and have submitted follow-up requests.
- What role did DeVos and Stephen Miller have in agency attempts to limit undocumented children’s enrollment in public schools? We’re seeking records about communications regarding these issues.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s personal financial interests in the farm sector and ties to industry have raised conflict-of-interest concerns since his tenure as governor of Georgia. And American Oversight’s investigations into his role in the Trump administration have already revealed a number of unsettling problems.
For example, we’ve uncovered ongoing contact with AGrowStar, a company that was part of Perdue’s grain business. Although Perdue is recused from dealings involving the company, prior to joining the administration Perdue and AGrowStar President Danny Brown had a history of trading favors to promote the business, according to Politico. And although Perdue pledged to step down from a board position at the National Grain and Feed Association when he joined the agency, records we obtained show that he remains in regular contact with the influential trade group.
Other documents we received also revealed how Perdue’s Agriculture Department engaged with meatpacking corporations to boost the industry at the expense of worker safety during the early days of the pandemic.
We still want to know:
- What’s the current status of Perdue’s relationship to his businesses and are those interests influencing agency policy? We have questions about how Perdue restructured his family businesses upon taking office, and called for the Department of Agriculture’s inspector general to investigate. We’re also suing for communications between Perdue and various former Georgia industry interests.
- Has Perdue’s Agriculture Department used trade negotiations to advance the president’s political interests? In his book, former National Security Adviser John Bolton alleged that Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to “buy as many American farm products as China could” to bolster his reelection chances. We’re asking for documents related to this issue.
- How much did taxpayers shell out to send Trump-signed letters to recipients of food aid boxes? The Farmers to Families program, coordinated with Ivanka Trump, came under scrutiny for having included in boxes of food letters with the president’s signature, along with guidance about mitigating Covid-19 that was less stringent than CDC recommendations. We’re asking for the costs of including these letters and for any directives or guidance about them.