The recent twists and turns of the Michael Flynn case have done little to hide the dangerous direction in which President Donald Trump and his administration are taking the Justice Department. From investigations into the president’s perceived enemies to interference in the criminal cases of Trump allies like Flynn and Roger Stone, the ongoing politicization of the department is a dangerous threat to the rule of law.
The Justice Department’s extraordinary decision to drop the case against Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser who had pleaded guilty not once, but twice, to having lied to the FBI, stunned many and lacked any obvious precedent. American Oversight’s Austin Evers and Melanie Sloan outline here what made the dismissal so unusual — and provide a number of questions that need to be thoroughly investigated.
One of those questions is the involvement of Attorney General William Barr, who kicked off his tenure by attempting to undermine the release of the Mueller report. The dismissal motion was signed by Timothy Shea, the interim U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and a political appointee who had worked closely with Barr and had been involved in the reversal of sentencing recommendations for Stone. This week, the federal judge presiding over Flynn’s case said he will accept written arguments from outside parties and appointed a retired judge to argue against the Justice Department’s motion for dismissal, a move that extends the duration of court proceedings and effectively slows down the department’s effort.
American Oversight sued the Justice Department on Monday for Barr’s communications about the Flynn case, including with the White House or Flynn’s attorneys. And on Wednesday, we called on the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate Shea for potential violations of D.C. bar rules and official department policy. As a lawyer representing the United States, Shea is required to zealously represent the interests of all Americans — not simply the interests of the president. We also filed new Freedom of Information Act requests for more records regarding Flynn’s case, including senior officials’ communications and directives.
Here’s what else we’ve been working on this week:
Extensive Timeline of Family-Separation Policy: This week, we published a timeline of the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their families at the border. The timeline — which begins in early 2017, more than a year before the announcement of “zero tolerance” — includes a number of documents that show that one of the administration’s harshest and most controversial policies was carried out with a startling lack of coordination, even as officials spent months laying the groundwork for the policy.
The CDC Has Been Illegally Rejecting Valid FOIA Requests — We’re Suing: On Friday, we sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over its illegal practice of rejecting valid FOIA requests. American Oversight has submitted a number of requests to the CDC for coronavirus-related records of urgent importance, but the agency has engaged in a practice of improperly claiming that those and other reasonably described requests are “overly broad.” This is the fifth lawsuit in our ongoing investigation of the Trump administration’s pandemic response.
Boehler-Kushner Communications: Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, American health-care professionals, first responders, and other essential workers have struggled to obtain urgently needed supplies — including ventilators, testing supplies, and personal protective equipment (PPE). Adam Boehler, CEO of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and former college roommate of White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, has reportedly been central in FEMA and other agencies’ response to supply shortages across the county. We asked DFC for Boehler’s communications with Kushner and for communications regarding Covid-19 supplies.
Self-Managed Abortion Care: The coronavirus outbreak has further limited access to abortion services in different states across the country, with some state governments outright temporarily banning abortions. In response, women’s reproductive health advocacy groups have argued for allowing doctors to mail abortion pills to patients. The Trump administration has waived regulations over telehealth during the outbreak, but this doesn’t appear to apply to abortion services. Meanwhile, the rate of self-managed abortions has surged and many have chosen to order abortion pills online from servicers in other countries. We asked HHS for directives, analyses, and communications regarding self-managed abortion, and DHS for records about imported abortion medication inspections.
Political Pressure on the Postal Service: Trump, who previously threatened to veto the coronavirus relief bill if it contained much-needed funding for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), has in recent days ramped up its attacks on the service. While the relief package ultimately included a loan to the USPS, the administration has since suggested that it may impose new terms to alter how the agency functions, a move many see as part of conservatives’ long-standing efforts to privatize and dismantle the USPS. We asked multiple agencies for records, communications, and analyses regarding the relief loan, as well as White House directives to the USPS regarding mail-in ballots.
De Blasio’s Coronavirus Response: Yesterday, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer launched an investigation into Mayor Bill de Blasio’s response to the city’s coronavirus outbreak. New York became the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, with hospitals and health-care workers straining under staff and supply shortages. De Blasio has faced criticism for waiting too long to shut down the city, even telling New Yorkers in March to visit their favorite bars one last time before business closures, and keeping public schools open until March 15. We asked the offices of the mayor and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as well as the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, for records concerning the coronavirus, including email communications, text messages, and meeting notes.
Fighting the Coronavirus Outbreak in Prisons: This week, the Georgia Department of Corrections announced that a twelfth prison inmate in the state died from the coronavirus. Incarcerated people living in close quarters with minimal or no protection are particularly vulnerable, and the Marshall Project has documented more than 20,000 cases of coronavirus among prisoners as of early May. Meanwhile, prisons are profiting off of phone calls made between inmates and family members. We filed records requests with the Georgia Department of Corrections for records regarding management of the coronavirus outbreak in prisons, including records about testing, fatalities, and risk assessments. We also asked two Georgia counties for records showing phone charges in jail during the pandemic.
Absentee Voting in Wisconsin: In early April, the Supreme Court ruled against extending the deadline for absentee voting in Wisconsin, a victory for Republican state lawmakers who critics say are attempting to make voting difficult for Wisconsin’s city residents. We asked the Wisconsin Elections Commission for communications with members of the state legislature and with specific voting-restrictionists.
Mardi Gras Follows CDC Guidelines, Spreads Coronavirus: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report in April that Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans likely contributed to the spread of coronavirus in Louisiana, though the report also conceded that CDC guidelines did not advise canceling large events at the time of the celebration. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said federal agencies did not warn her about the public health risk, even though some agencies are involved in Mardi Gras planning every year. We filed requests with the mayor’s office, the Louisiana governor’s office, and the Louisiana Department of Health for coronavirus-related records, including communications with the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Ukraine and the Administration’s Energy Policy: In March 2019 at an energy conference in Texas, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — associates of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani — and energy magnate Harry Sargeant III met with Andrew Favorov, an executive of the state-owned Ukrainian oil and gas company Naftogaz. According to news reports, the men proposed that Favorov become Naftogaz CEO as part of a plan to ship large amounts of liquified natural gas from the U.S. to Ukraine. In May of that year (the same month he attended the Ukrainian president’s inauguration), then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry authorized natural gas exports from facilities owned by Tellurian Inc. and Sempra Energy. As part of our ongoing investigation into the Trump administration’s contacts with Ukraine, we asked the Energy Department for top officials’ communications with Sempra and Tellurian.
Cabinet Members Campaign for Trump: In February, the Trump campaign dispatched several cabinet secretaries to campaign in Iowa, raising questions about potential Hatch Act violations. Similar concerns developed during the 2018 midterm elections, when various department secretaries attended official government events that doubled as part of the president’s campaign strategy. We filed FOIA requests with multiple federal agencies for records of high-level agency officials participating in Trump campaign events, including records reflecting travel arrangements with the president’s reelection team this past February.
Emissions Regulation Rollbacks: Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) rolled back national regulations governing greenhouse gas emissions and fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. Critics have raised concerns that the new rules include substantial errors, and that the changes will harm the environment and increase the number of premature deaths from air pollution. We asked the EPA and NHTSA for the calendars and communications of high-ranking officials involved in developing the new emissions standards, and for communications with the White House about the rollbacks.
USDA Kansas City Relocation Lawsuit: American Oversight and the Union of Concerned Scientists filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for records regarding the agency’s office relocation to Kansas City, Mo., which resulted in many employees departing from the agency. The building in Kansas City selected for the relocation is co-owned by a business belonging to a prominent Republican donor, raising questions about the motives behind the move. You can read more about the lawsuit here.
New Lawsuit for Communications about Gainful Employment Rule: Along with the organization Student Defense, we also sued the Department of Education this week for records related to the gainful employment rule. The rule, which was repealed by Secretary Betsy DeVos in July 2019, sought to protect students of for-profit colleges from excessive debt. The lawsuit seeks the release of communications between Education officials and nongovernment parties about the decision to repeal.
Perdue’s Personal Email Use: We published USDA officials’ communications with non-government email addresses, and found what appear to be scheduling messages concerning official government business sent from Secretary Sonny Perdue’s personal email address. The emails include an invitation to the conservative Maverick Political Action Committee’s 2017 conference from Morgan Ortagus, who at the time was a Fox News contributor and Maverick PAC co-chair and is now a State Department spokesperson.