Was his impeachment, in the now-infamous words of Sen. Susan Collins, a “pretty big lesson” for President Donald Trump? If this past week is anything to go by, it was — or at least, his acquittal by the Senate was. As was widely predicted, Trump has been emboldened, and his sights appear to be trained on making the Justice Department his personal political arm for helping allies and punishing perceived enemies.
To start (well, not quite to “start,” as the politicization of the department has been a running theme of the Trump administration), on Tuesday came the stunning news that the Justice Department’s leadership had intervened in the case against Trump ally Roger Stone, undercutting the 7 to 9 years’ imprisonment recommendation of the department’s own prosecutors. All four of them immediately withdrew from the case. Jessie Liu, the U.S. attorney who had overseen the Stone case, had been nominated for a job at the Treasury, but Trump abruptly pulled her nomination and on Thursday, she resigned from the administration.
That this shocking reversal occurred shortly after the president himself had tweeted his displeasure at the sentencing recommendation raised alarm bells. Trump even congratulated Attorney General William Barr for “taking charge of” the case. In an interview with ABC News on Thursday, Barr maintained that he is “not going to be bullied or influenced by anybody” when doing his job. To find out whether that’s true, American Oversight filed new Freedom of Information Act requests for communications senior Justice Department officials had with the White House or the prosecution team, and for the required written justification for leadership’s intervention in the case.
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney John Durham, who was assigned to examine the origins of the investigation into Russian election interference, is reportedly looking into an unsubstantiated theory suggesting the CIA under former Director John Brennan was trying to keep other agencies from seeing secrets it had gathered in the Russia probe so as to delegitimize Trump’s 2016 victory. In an interview on Thursday, Brennan said Durham’s line of inquiry was “another indication that Donald Trump is using the Department of Justice to go after his enemies any way he can.”
Then today, the New York Times reported that Barr has assigned an outside prosecutor to look at the criminal case of another Trump associate, former National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Other politically sensitive cases are also being scrutinized. “The moves amounted to imposing a secondary layer of monitoring and control over what career prosecutors have been doing in the Washington office,” said the New York Times.
And of course, the Justice Department having established what Barr called an “intake process” for dirt Rudy Giuliani supposedly gathered on the president’s political opponents is another serious concern. Trump, who the Associated Press reports “has told confidants … that he felt both vindicated and strengthened by his acquittal in the Senate,” now admits to having sent Giuliani to Ukraine to get such damaging information, something he denied during the impeachment inquiry. Trump even engaged in a new quid pro quo on Twitter on Thursday, demanding New York drop investigations and lawsuits related to his administration in exchange for the Department of Homeland Security lifting a ban on New York residents enrolling in certain travel programs.
Yes, the president does appear to have learned a lesson. But so have we, and that is that aggressive oversight works and is more important than ever. Read on:
New Ukraine Documents: American Oversight obtained two new sets of Ukraine-related documents this week, one from the Department of State and another from the Department of Defense. The Defense records, released today, are largely duplicative of many documents previously released to the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) in December 2019, but more documents are coming, including as soon as next week. You can see what we’ve obtained so far here. And check out this list of our unanswered questions to find out what we’re still looking for — we’re determined to find out who else was “in the loop” of the president’s corrupt Ukraine scheme.
Behind the Redactions: On Tuesday, Just Security reported that it had obtained unredacted versions of emails American Oversight obtained through FOIA litigation from the Office of Management and Budget, revealing new details about the extent to which OMB misled Congress about the withholding of military aid to Ukraine. Tuesday’s revelations detail OMB’s efforts to suppress the Pentagon’s worries over the legality of the aid freeze — and highlight the involvement of Mark Paoletta, the OMB general counsel who has been the one reviewing redactions on released documents and who himself was a central figure in the administration’s effort to withhold aid.
Challenging the Redactions: American Oversight, along with Democracy Forward, submitted an amicus brief in support of a CPI court filing that seeks the lifting of overly heavy redactions on Ukraine documents CPI obtained. Much of the substance of those documents was withheld under a Presidential Communications Privilege claim, which the filing and our amicus brief argue should not be used to cover up evidence of crimes. “Governmental privileges cannot become a tool to mask misconduct or illegality,” said American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers.
Pompeo’s Bullying: American Oversight filed a new lawsuit today, seeking records related to any complaints concerning the conduct of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, including from his time as director of the CIA. NBC’s Richard Engel reported last fall that according to former senior intelligence officials, Pompeo’s bullying at the CIA had even driven some employees “to quit or seek new assignments.”
Benczkowski’s Russian Bank Waiver: In late 2018, American Oversight had uncovered records indicating that Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski — who used to work for Alfa Bank, a Russian bank owned by oligarchs — had been recused from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference, and that he had received authorization to participate in certain matters related to a “former client.” Recently, Benczkowski received an ethics waiver allowing him to participate in a confidential criminal matter involving Alfa Bank. We filed a request this week for records that could shed more light on this waiver.
Colorado Health Policy: Colorado’s efforts to expand access to affordable health care — namely, the establishment of a state reinsurance program and taking steps to create a public option — have faced strong opposition from the hospital industry. We want to know whether and to what extent industry allies have received support from top officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, including Administrator Seema Verma.
Perry’s Pipeline Post: After exiting the Trump administration, former Energy Secretary Rick Perry didn’t waste much time before joining the board of Energy Transfer LP, a natural gas and propane pipeline transport company responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Energy Transfer’s history of lobbying the Energy Department while Perry was secretary has raised questions about the ethics of his new position. We filed a FOIA request for Energy officials’ communications with Perry or other representatives of the company since the former secretary joined the board.
Russian Oligarch Gets a Pass: The Daily Beast reported this week that the Treasury has “mysteriously” backed off its stated plan to level new sanctions against the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who had ties to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and alleged business dealings with Secretary Steven Mnuchin. American Oversight filed a lawsuit late last year for Treasury records related to a Deripaska-connected company that had invested in a Kentucky aluminum plant.
McConnell-Chao Kentucky Favoritism: Last year, American Oversight uncovered communications indicating that the office of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao had created a separate channel for prioritizing requests from the home state of her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. We filed public records requests with the Kentucky governor’s office for former Gov. Matt Bevin’s communications with Chao’s office or McConnell’s office about specific grants.
Iran’s Missile Strikes: The number of U.S. troops who experienced traumatic brain injuries after Iran’s retaliatory Jan. 7–8 strikes on bases in Iraq keeps rising and is now at more than 100, despite Trump’s initial statements that no Americans were harmed. We filed a number of FOIA requests with the Departments of Defense and State for any injury assessments as well as communications with the White House or key members of Congress about the injuries, which Trump has dismissed as “headaches.”
Shadow Banks: Thanks to new guidance for the Financial Stability Oversight Council, it is now significantly more difficult to apply certain designations to nonbank financial entities known as “shadow banks,” which experts warn will result in much more lenient regulation of these entities and potentially serious consequences for the stability of the financial system. We filed FOIA requests with multiple agencies for officials’ communications with industry representatives to learn whether and to what extent industry interests were behind this policy change.
Election Official Against Automatic Voter Registration: Christy McCormick, a commissioner on the woefully under-resourced Election Assistance Commission (EAC), gave a presentation in August 2019 at the National Conference of State Legislatures in which she expressed her opposition to automatic voter registration out of questionable First Amendment and security concerns. We’re asking for EAC communications about that presentation to shed light on its creation.
Kemp–Trump Campaign Communications: In December, Ga. Gov. Brian Kemp gave the president’s private business some free advertising when he posted on social media about having had a “great cheeseburger” at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. This was not too long after we had obtained records indicating that Kentucky taxpayers had initially footed the $686 bill for former Gov. Matt Bevin’s stay at the hotel in January 2019. A Kemp spokesperson said that no Georgia taxpayers’ money was spent at the hotel, but we want to know more about Kemp’s relationship with the Trump family and the president’s re-election campaign. We filed records requests for related communications with the governor’s and the secretary of state’s office.
State Accountability Project: We filed requests with multiple Georgia counties and the secretary of state’s office for communications related to voter identification requirements for transgender or gender non-conforming individuals, and asked for key Florida legislators’ communications containing specific vote-related terms. On Thursday, we joined All Voting is Local and other groups in sending a letter to the Florida secretary of state, urging the office to ensure that Florida’s online voter registration system is working correctly in advance of the upcoming Feb. 18 deadline. We’re also continuing the expansion of our investigation into voter suppression in the states, filing records requests in Wisconsin for communications between top state election officials and high-ranking members of the state legislature.