These are anxious and uncertain times. The past three years of the Trump administration have led many Americans to worry about our constitutional norms, our country’s treatment of vulnerable populations, and our leaders’ commitments to public service over personal enrichment. And now, the federal government’s botched response to a national emergency has provided yet another unwelcome example of why holding our leaders accountable is vital for both our democracy and our safety.
In March of 2017, American Oversight was founded to uncover misconduct in the federal government that went unchecked by the legislative branch. While the new House majority that took office in January 2019 brought with it a much-needed constitutional check on the executive branch, the Trump administration’s obstruction of congressional oversight made our organization’s Freedom of Information Act work more important than ever. This was — and still is — especially apparent with regard to the impeachment inquiry, with which the White House and administration refused to cooperate. And with this year’s upcoming election, our State Accountability Project, launched in 2019 to examine voting rights and election security, takes on new significance.
In the past year, our team of expert researchers and litigators have filed more than 1,700 FOIA requests on subjects ranging from immigration to impeachment, from cabinet officials to health care. Our efforts turned up evidence of undue influence at the federal and state levels, records shedding light on conditions in migrant detention centers, and hundreds of pages of Ukraine-related documents that were withheld from Congress.
As American Oversight marks its third anniversary, our work to expose corruption, self-dealing and other misconduct continues. Here’s a look at what we’ve discovered in the last year as well as the groundwork we’ve laid for the next.
Thanks to American Oversight’s and other watchdogs’ FOIA work, the American public has been able to see hundreds of pages of records shedding light on Trump’s Ukraine scheme that the administration refused to provide to Congress. Throughout the impeachment inquiry and even after his Senate acquittal in early February, evidence of Trump’s efforts to coerce Ukraine into announcing an investigation of Joe Biden has regularly emerged.
In November, American Oversight obtained State Department documents showing that Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani had talked with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in March 2019, at the time that the smear campaign against then-Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was in full swing. More recently, we uncovered records from the Office of Management and Budget that included an email from a career Defense Department official, stating clearly that Trump was the reason for the holdup in congressionally authorized aid for Ukraine. This was contrary to OMB’s stated justification for the aid freeze, which the Government Accountability Office determined was illegal. And under heavy redactions in other documents was yet further evidence that the illegality of the aid freeze was the subject of consistent warnings from a Pentagon official, also contrary to OMB statements.
But all of that evidence was related to Trump’s actions before the eventual release of aid in September 2019, which only came after a whistleblower complaint addressed to Congress detailed concerns over Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. News reports indicate that not only has Giuliani continued to solicit “dirt” on Biden in Ukraine, but that Attorney General William Barr’s Justice Department has even created a channel for such information, raising questions about how such a politicized orientation in the agency could be used for Trump’s personal and electoral interests. The formal impeachment inquiry may have ended in February, but American Oversight’s investigation of the White House’s potential ongoing efforts to solicit foreign interference in our elections continues.
The federal government’s response to the frightening and rapidly unfolding coronavirus situation has been defined by inadequate resources, confusing communications and blatant misinformation. Trump’s own demonstrably false statements, the worrying scarcity of testing kits, and the administration’s questionable control of official communications have only heightened anxiety.
We know enough about the failed response to disasters like the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico as well as Hurricane Dorian in the southeast to know that this administration’s ability to handle serious emergencies is defined by mismanagement, corruption and political self-serving. We’ve filed dozens of FOIA requests to learn more about whether and to what extent Trump’s inadequate response to the coronavirus outbreak has put lives at risk, and whether the White House’s attempted control of information has served Trump’s political interests over the health of the public.
Fresh off his flawed acquittal in the Senate on impeachment charges, Trump began an alarming expansion of what was already his dictator-like need for obsequious loyalty. It wasn’t just the outsing of officials, such as Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who had testified in the House’s impeachment inquiry. He also had reportedly been assisted by a network of conservative activists in developing lists of “Never Trump” officials to kick out. And Trump also rehired John McEntee, a former personal aide and body man, to head the White House’s personnel office, where he reportedly asked White House liaisons from cabinet agencies to identify political appointees believed to be anti-Trump.
The dangers of an administration staffed by officials primarily motivated by loyalty and fear rather than by commitment to public service are obvious, made more so during a time of national emergency. Our national security is also at risk thanks to Trump’s reshaping of the intelligence community. In February, he replaced the acting director of national intelligence with a political loyalist, Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell. Other officials followed. American Oversight has filed dozens of requests for information on these and other planned authoritarian purges, an issue with profound implications for our democracy and our security.
This past year, American Oversight launched our State Accountability Project, using our experience in open-records research and litigation to expose corruption at the state and local levels. Our work has focused on uncovering threats to voting rights and election security in multiple states.
In Georgia, we obtained records indicating that voting devices used “1234” as their default password, “an exceptionally weak security measure that makes the devices easy prey for hackers looking to disrupt voting in key precincts or sow chaos en masse.” State officials have said the passwords have been changed. In Florida, where a ballot measure restoring the franchise to people with prior felony convictions was undermined by a state law requiring those voters to pay all fines and fees, we uncovered a number of communications illustrating the state’s lack of preparedness for even tracking what people owe so they can eventually exercise their right to vote. And in Texas, we’ve been looking at state officials’ contacts with voting-restriction activists. As the 2020 election draws nearer, we’re looking to expand our work in other states — keep an eye on our website.
White House Senior Adviser Stephen Miller, the man behind some of the administration’s cruelest immigration policies, notoriously has taken pains to avoid putting much of his work in writing. At the same time, he has installed hand-picked, like-minded advisers across the administration to help him carry out his extremist agenda. A year ago, we filed a lawsuit for agency communications with Miller as part of our wide-ranging investigation of Miller’s network of political appointees to shed light on his influence at various agencies.
We’ve assembled a timeline of all the communications we’ve uncovered between Miller and his allies, and we continue to obtain documents in response to our FOIA requests. For instance, one set of emails we received, which were covered by Rolling Stone, provide a glimpse into how one official — ICE Senior Adviser Jon Feere — worked with Miller to strategize, recommend hires, and provide him with key updates.
The Trump administration’s hardline anti-immigrant stance extends beyond Stephen Miller and has even emboldened state officials like former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. American Oversight obtained records showing that in late 2017, Kobach, who had served on the president’s now-defunct “voter fraud” commission and was running for governor that year, had sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement the names of 289 Nebraska residents, asking the agency to “verify the immigration status” of the people on the list and suggesting it use that information for “ICE enforcement operations,” such as deportation.
In July, American Oversight found that the administration, while devising its controversial and dangerous Remain in Mexico policy, had scrapped a question asking migrants whether they feared being returned to Mexico. We’ve also been investigating the conditions in migrant detention centers, from cold temperatures and inadequate medical care to poor treatment. In September 2019, we published hundreds of photos from inside detention centers for unaccompanied migrant children, including images of living areas of photos of handwritten complaint forms. And even though acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf testified before the Senate that he had not helped develop the family-separation policy, we have his calendars from 2017 that include several meetings on the topic.
Since his inauguration, President Donald Trump has apparently believed the Justice Department existed to do his own political bidding, whether it was investigating his formal political rivals (Hillary Clinton) and his perceived future rivals (Joe Biden), attacking specific investigations (Russian interference), or interfering in cases involving his allies (Roger Stone).
Attorney General Barr has seemed willing to play along, and in February we launched an investigation into his intervention in Stone’s sentencing recommendations. Last spring, after Barr preempted the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation report with his own summary, then followed up with a heavily redacted version of the report, American Oversight provided a guide to the exemptions Barr cited when hiding certain portions of the report from the public. We’ve also been investigating Barr’s potential involvement in Trump’s corrupt Ukraine scheme, having sued the Justice Department for his related communications.
American Oversight has been looking into the outside influences over actions of cabinet officials, from Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s ties to Georgia industry to former Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s moneyed connections to energy companies, and from Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s contacts with former clients from his time as a fossil fuel lobbyist to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s political ambitions and past behavior. And we’ve uncovered some concerning information.
Records we obtained indicate that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao could potentially be using her office to aid her family’s international shipping business. We also uncovered records that showed her office coordinating with the office of her husband, Sen. Mitch McConnell. Besides meeting with Kentucky-specific interests a number of times at the behest of McConnell’s office, her team also created a separate communication channel for Kentucky requests.
Then there’s billionaire Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose confusing maze of financial holdings has made parsing his ethics agreements difficult. His calendars have revealed multiple meetings that raise concerns about conflicts of interest, including a meeting with former Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg in March 2017 while his wife owned $3 million worth of stock in the company. And American Oversight’s FOIA requests and litigation have further exposed the pro-charter and pro-student loan industry bent of the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos, as well as the outside health-care privatization push at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
They should have learned from the uproar over Ivanka Trump’s extensive use of personal email for official business (just as she should have learned from 2016). But instead, many Trump administration officials have apparently ignored this lesson. Records we got through FOIA litigation show that former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin used his personal Gmail account on thousands of occasions to communicate, which is especially concerning given the outside influences that have been involved in VA work. Other high-ranking officials also used non-official accounts to communicate. So did Secretary DeVos.
On top of that, we also found that former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley sent classified emails on an unclassified system. The emails were sent at the time of a North Korean missile test in July 2017 — a matter that obviously was of great importance to U.S. national security.
However much they may try to spin it, it’s no secret that leaders in the Trump administration, including the president himself, have made it their mission since day one to undermine the Affordable Care Act. Besides the case before the Supreme Court on which the health-care law’s survival currently hinges, there was the failed attempt in 2017 to “repeal and replace” the ACA in Congress.
During those efforts, then–OMB Director Mick Mulvaney reportedly sent a secret letter to conservative House members detailing administration plans to weaken the law. American Oversight sued for the letter and related communications under FOIA, and in April 2019 a federal judge rejected the administration’s arguments for using specific redactions on the communications it had finally turned over.
The administration is appealing that decision, but we’ve been investigating the other ways the government has been sabotaging the ACA, including actions that increase premiums and reduce enrollment or attempts to overhaul Medicaid. In early March, we published a script from the Department of Health and Human Services for an anti-ACA video that was apparently never released. The script begins with the line “Obamacare has failed the American people” — you can read more here.
As we look ahead to our next year, our targeted investigations are more vital than ever, whether it’s the immediate issue of the coronavirus pandemic or the ongoing corruption of Trump’s get-richer-quick presidency. Without effective oversight, our democracy, values and safety are at stake, and American Oversight will continue to hold our government accountable.
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