On Sunday, Attorney General William Barr issued a summary of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation. According to Barr, Mueller concluded that the president did not conspire with Russia during the 2016 presidential election, but left open the question of whether he obstructed justice. The president promptly crowed that the report provided “complete and total exoneration.”
The president’s claim is, of course, false. It’s false for many reasons. First, it is false on its face because Mueller explicitly wrote that his report “does not exonerate” Trump from having committed a crime. Second, until the public sees the full Mueller report, it’s impossible to know how or why Mueller reached his conclusions. Based on the public record, the Trump campaign may not have engaged in an express conspiracy with Russia, but it appears at minimum to have flirted with doing so. Until we see the evidence, we can’t know whether Trump was exonerated as a technical legal matter or whether he in fact acted entirely above board.
Third, Mueller’s findings were limited to collusion and obstruction. Barr’s report said nothing about the election fraud we know Trump engaged in by paying off Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal to avoid the public learning about his trysts. Likewise, the report is silent on the rogues’ gallery of criminals Trump surrounded himself with, including during his presidency (Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, and others).
Finally, the corruption of the Trump administration goes far beyond and far deeper than even the criminality described above. From the top down, the administration is transactional, me-first, and fundamentally corrupt. American Oversight has spent two years investigating the corrupt actions and intentions that plague seemingly every Trump agency. If Trump thinks the end of the Mueller investigation means he has a clean slate, he’s wrong. If anything, the Mueller investigation has permitted scores of corrupt acts to go under-scrutinized.
If you need proof, look no further than a report from Reveal published on Saturday about a recording of oil executives laughing at and “almost giddy” about their extraordinary influence with administration officials at the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. The recording, from the summer of 2017, reveals Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) officials boasting of “unprecedented access” to then–Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, then–EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and David Bernhardt, the former oil industry lobbyist and lawyer for the IPAA, who was then the deputy interior secretary.
For the oil executives, the Trump administration is too good to be true. The rest of us are not laughing.
While we still need full transparency on what Mueller found, we also need to recommit to uncovering the corruption of the federal government that costs taxpayers money, lines officials’ pockets, and undermines democracy from within. Collusion was never the only count on the indictment of the Trump administration.
In the spirit of Attorney General Barr’s letter, here are the “principal conclusions” of other investigations into the first two years of the Trump administration.
The oil executives caught giggling over their access were right to be happy. In the year and a half since they boasted of their connections, the government has acceded to the industry’s demands, severely weakening regulations on air and water pollution and opening up millions of acres to drilling and mining.
Pruitt — whose calendars (especially those he kept hidden) showed he prioritized meetings with industry lobbyists over environmental experts — left the administration in 2018 in a cloud of scandals. The climate change skeptic had ratcheted up a list of ethics controversies, including first-class air travel (but only when it was taxpayer-funded), $50-per-night stays in a lobbyist’s condo, and a secret phone booth that American Oversight discovered cost $43,000.
Zinke exited the administration under a similar ethical cloud. His tenure was marked by perks for personal friends and his involvement in a questionable real-estate deal with Halliburton. Zinke and his wife spent tens of thousands on taxpayer-funded travel and security details, and American Oversight obtained records of office renovation expenses that show considerable time and energy spent hanging animal heads loaned by his Montana friends. When he left, Zinke handed the reins of Interior to his deputy, Bernhardt, who had continued to provide political advice to a client after telling Congress he’d stopped lobbying — and reportedly has so many potential conflicts of interest he has to carry around a card listing them all.
American taxpayers footed the bill for the privileged public-service lifestyle Trump’s appointees claimed for themselves. And from loosened standards on toxic chemicals to the suppression of scientific reports, we will continue to pay the price for the administration’s regulatory capture for years.
Of course, Pruitt and Zinke weren’t the first administration officials to resign in scandal. In September 2017, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price stepped down after his frequent taxpayer-funded trips on chartered jets came to light. He’s not the only cabinet official to have made wasteful or frivolous travel decisions. Nor were Zinke and Pruitt the only officials to waste federal money on exorbitantly priced office upgrades. After news broke that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson attempted to purchase a $31,000 dining set for his office, he first blamed his wife. Records obtained by American Oversight, however, revealed that Carson had been directly involved in the furniture selection.
Carson has also allowed his family unprecedented influence and involvement at HUD. American Oversight uncovered records that show Carson’s son, Ben Carson Jr., has attempted to use his influence to advance his own private business interests, including efforts to include a neighborhood on his Secretary Carson’s tour of Baltimore that the younger Carson’s company was considering investing in. HUD later awarded a $1.3 million grant to that neighborhood. The HUD inspector general is currently investigating the role of the secretary’s family at the department, and our own investigation continues.
Across the administration, the weight of cabinet officials’ financial conflicts of interest threatens to sink them into the swamp. Billionaire Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ complex web of financial holdings make it difficult to track his recusal obligations. On multiple occasions, Ross has failed to divest assets he promised he would, even making a profit from industry groups he was revealed to have had meetings with while in office. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has allowed for-profit and religious schools a high level of influence and access at her department, revised her 2018 financial disclosure form dozens of times before submitting it late, raising questions about accuracy.
Attempts to use government office for personal enrichment is a theme of the administration, no more so than with the president himself. Trump has failed to financially divest from his business, allowing him to profit off the presidency in previously unheard-of ways, and agencies have failed to produce any records of general guidance on spending federal money at Trump properties, opening the door for further corruption. The president interfered with longstanding plans to relocate the FBI headquarters from its current location in Washington, D.C., and we’ve sued multiple agencies for records that could shed light on whether it was done to prevent competition with his hotel that sits one block away. (Several of those agencies, by the way, are refusing to even search for the records we requested.)
There’s far more, of course. American Oversight uncovered emails showing that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao gave special treatment to Kentucky-specific requests from the office of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And we obtained agency calendars that reveal alarmingly frequent and friendly meetings with far-right groups and with representatives of the same industries that government departments are supposed to be regulating. Multiple administration officials were involved in a scheme to sell nuclear power technology to Saudi Arabia, over the objections of the head of the National Security Council and top ethics officials — calendars we obtained show the extent of the administration’s involvement, and we’ve filed FOIA requests for more information.
The corruption isn’t just financial. Trump has populated his administration with appointees lacking the most necessary professional experience, seemingly valuing political loyalty over expertise. We’ve obtained hundreds of resumes revealing allegiance to Trump along with meager qualifications, and the administration has reportedly been retaliating against career government employees seen as disloyal. At the same time, the president has called upon the Justice Department to investigate his perceived political enemies. Through Freedom of Information Act litigation, American Oversight has uncovered the signed directive — which the Justice Department previously claimed didn’t exist — from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions instructing a federal prosecutor to carry out Trump’s authoritarian demand to investigate Hillary Clinton.
The list goes on: Claims of widespread voter fraud by Trump and members of his now-defunct commission on election integrity were revealed to be a ruse. Emails obtained by American Oversight show that Trump’s transgender military ban caught Pentagon officials by surprise. And Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner used private email and messaging accounts to conduct official business, despite Trump’s 2016 campaign’s focus on Clinton’s use of a private email server.
This inventory of corruption is far from comprehensive, and the many scandals are symptoms of an administration serving the interests of the powerful rather than those of the nation. Mueller’s investigation focused only on Russian interference and obstruction of justice, and did not go so far as to exonerate the president of obstruction. In the meantime, after sitting on the sidelines for two years, Congress is finally investigating issues like the Trump administration’s campaign-finance violations, its failed responses to hurricanes, and its zero-tolerance immigration policy that separated thousands of children from their parents. American Oversight has filed parallel FOIA requests, and is prepared to sue if the administration continues to stonewall Congress.
Barr’s summary of the special counsel investigation’s report makes clear two things: First, Congress must have access to the full report. And second, no matter what the report contains, the American public did not need Mueller to expose more than two years of unprecedented corruption. The evidence of that has been here all along.