Every week seems to bring a new example of President Donald Trump’s disdain — or fear — of independent oversight. He has fired agency watchdogs, rebuffed congressional requests, and is obsessed with political loyalty and his own electoral prospects.
His latest move, announced late last Friday, was to replace the inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services, Christi Grimm. Grimm had issued a report in April detailing the widespread shortages of coronavirus testing supplies and personal protective equipment in U.S. hospitals, and, true to form, Trump lashed out. Meanwhile, the former head HHS’s vaccine development agency, Dr. Rick Bright, issued a damning whistleblower complaint, alleging that he was ousted from his position for raising concerns about the antimalarial drug promoted by the president as a coronavirus treatment. Lawmakers had requested that Grimm investigate Bright’s reassignment.
Grimm, of course, isn’t the first inspector general Trump has removed. In early April, he ousted acting Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine, and then a few days later notified Congress that he was removing Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson. Meanwhile, White House Counsel Brian Miller, who helped defend the president during impeachment proceedings, was nominated to the new role of special inspector general for pandemic recovery, tasked with overseeing the $500 billion Treasury stimulus fund passed by Congress in late March.
Senators and outside watchdog organizations have raised concerns over Miller’s ability to put the public interest ahead of the interests of the president, despite his assurances during his Senate confirmation hearing this week that he would act independently. “As a member of the president’s impeachment defense team, Miller was on the front lines of the president’s ‘war on subpoenas,’” said American Oversight Executive Director Austin Evers. “It’s entirely fair to question whether he will act any differently now. The Special Inspector General is one of the few things standing between President Trump and a $500 billion slush fund.”
American Oversight has filed more than 400 Freedom of Information Act requests and four lawsuits to uncover information about the administration’s coronavirus response, including whether and to what extent corporate and industry interests have exerted influence over it. Over the last week, we’ve also requested legal analyses from the Justice Department regarding inspector general dismissals, communications of senior officials in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence about Atkinson’s removal, and have filed FOIA requests with multiple agencies for Miller’s communications with officials involved in the impeachment inquiry.
As this all unfolds, Trump continues to try to find a scapegoat on which to pin his administration’s tragically botched handling of the coronavirus pandemic. His recent claim that the virus originated in a Chinese lab has also been pushed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who went so far as to say earlier this week that there was “enormous evidence” of it. Pompeo appears to have somewhat walked back that claim as lawmakers press for such evidence and point to the statement released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last week that it “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19- virus was not manmade or genetically modified.”
Another scapegoat has been the World Health Organization, which the president has claimed mismanaged and covered up the virus’s spread. Last month, the administration decided to halt funding to the WHO at a time when, according to United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, U.S. funding is “absolutely critical to the world’s efforts” to fight the pandemic. Lawmakers have pointed out that the administration has provided little formal justification for the funding cut, and American Oversight has filed more than a dozen FOIA requests for related communications, assessments or legal analyses — and we also want to know where that money is now going.
For more on our many investigations of the Trump administration, including its response to the coronavirus, read on:
American Oversight Sues Treasury, HHS, State Departments for Coronavirus Communications: On Tuesday, we sued the administration for failing to release coronavirus-related emails sent by two dozen top officials. The lawsuit seeks to compel the release of emails sent by senior Trump appointees including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, HHS Secretary Alex Azar, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Investigating Communications with Pharmaceutical Companies About Vaccine Pricing: In partnership with the Lower Drug Prices Now coalition, we filed four FOIA requests with HHS for information on the development of coronavirus vaccines and the agency’s plans for making vaccines available to the general public. The requests ask for the release of written agreements and communications between HHS officials and the pharmaceutical companies Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, both of which have recently made agreements with HHS regarding the development of a coronavirus vaccine and received taxpayer dollars to expedite the process.
Grievance Records from Immigration Detention Centers: On Wednesday, Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, a 57-year-old man from El Salvador, died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody due to respiratory failure after testing positive for COVID-19. Mejia was held at Otay Mesa Detention Center, where, as of Wednesday, 132 of ICE’s reported 705 positive COVID-19 detainee cases are located. We filed a FOIA request with ICE for any written or emergency grievances filed since March at multiple detention centers, including Otay Mesa.
White Supremacy in the Military: In February, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) testified before Congress on alarming incidents of white supremacy in the armed forces, and the same month, a Military Times survey found that more than half of active-duty respondents had personally witnessed evidence of white supremacist ideology within their ranks recently. White supremacist infiltration in the military is not a new problem, but in December the Senate removed mention of “white nationalists” from the enlistment screening process. We filed FOIA requests with the Department of Defense — including the Army, Navy, Coast Gaurd, and Marine Corps — for reports or studies reflecting incidents of white supremacy, white nationalism, pro-Nazi, and far-right ideology among military personnel.
The CIA’s Perplexing Response to Our Requests for Records on Soleimani Strikes: The early January attack that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani was troubling not just because it raised alarm over escalating U.S.-Iran tensions, but also because many worried that the Trump administration was laying groundwork for military conflict without congressional authorization. We filed requests for legal analyses and congressional notifications regarding the attack, and the CIA was less than forthcoming.
Barr Did Not Formally Consider Recusing Himself from Ukraine Investigations: We already knew that Attorney General William Barr had ignored requests that he recuse himself from Ukraine- or Biden-related investigations. But according to the Justice Department’s response to our FOIA requests, the department could find no records of communications about whether he should do so, and no formal guidance or recommendations on possible recusal or the handling of the whistleblower complaint.
Still No Guidance on Trump Properties Spending: Nearly three and a half years into an administration in which the president maintains financial ties to his personal business, it appears that no agency has created any official guidance for spending taxpayer money at Trump properties. And, as we detailed last month, we know such spending has happened frequently. We’ve filed dozens of requests for records regarding federal spending at the president’s businesses, and have yet to receive anything substantive; most recently, Customs and Border Protection responded that it could locate no such records.
Former White House Staffer with White Supremacist Ties: In August 2018, the Atlantic reported that then-DHS policy analyst and Trump political appointee Ian M. Smith had a friendly relationship with white nationalists prior to his government service. The Washington Post later reported that Smith attended White House policy meetings during his tenure at DHS. We sent requests to DHS for the calendars, ethics documents, and communications of Smith, who resigned before the Atlantic story was published.
Climate Change Amplifies Toxic Site Risks: A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report published in October 2019 found that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needed to take additional actions to safeguard Superfund toxic waste sites that are at serious risk from the effects of climate change. GAO made recommendations in their report, but in the end, the EPA only agreed with one. We filed FOIA requests to the EPA for records showing site-specific efforts to determine and mitigate the impact of climate change on Superfund sites.
Absentee Ballots and Voting Machines in Georgia: In April, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that about 60,000 Georgia voters received absentee ballot request forms with the wrong return address. By the end of the month, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had created an Absentee Ballot Fraud Task Force, which critics argued used resources that could be better spent on other voting initiatives. We filed several records requests about the misprinted absentee ballot forms, including for the secretary of state’s communications with the U.S. Postal Service and for Troup County officials’ related emails. We also asked the offices of the secretary of state and the attorney general for communications about the new task force, and we’re seeking records of any additional voting machine contracts as part of our ongoing investigation into Georgia’s voting security.
Allegations of Nepotism Against U.S. Ambassador: In February, news reports surfaced that State Department officials were stonewalling congressional inquiries into allegations of nepotism and mismanagement at the U.S. embassy in South Africa. Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to senior State officials listing unaddressed concerns, including reports that U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Lana Marks (a fashion designer and Mar-A-Lago club member) tried to place her son in a high-ranking role at the embassy. We filed requests with the State Department for Marks’s communications, calendars, and ethics documents.
Trump Campaign Takes Off: On Thursday, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale raised eyebrows when he compared the president’s reelection campaign to the fictional, planet-destroying Star Wars weapon the Death Star. We’ve already filed FOIA requests with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Justice Department for agency officials’ communications with the White House concerning any candidates running for federal office this November. We also asked both agencies for communications with individuals associated with the Trump campaign, and the FEC for complaints filed by the White House or the Trump campaign concerning candidate conduct.
Obstruction of IRS Audit of President and Vice President: In the fall of 2019, an official at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) filed a whistleblower complaint that a Treasury Department political appointee had attempted to interfere with the IRS’s annual audits of Trump or Vice President Mike Pence. The complaint alerted the inspector general, and senators have since opened an investigation into the allegations. We’re asking for IRS and Treasury communications regarding those annual audits, and we’re also requesting Treasury officials’ communications with the Senate Finance Committee and with the staff of Sens. Chuck Grassley and Mitch McConnell.
Private Email List for Coordinating a Conservative Supreme Court: In 2018, conservative activists had reportedly been using an email list called Bravoure to monitor Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination process. Last week, we filed a records request with the Texas Office of the Attorney General for officials’ communications referencing Bravoure, and this week we sent FOIA requests to the Justice Department and Office of Management and Budget for Bravoure emails.
Emails Showing DeVry CEO Lobbying Against Gainful Employment Rule: We recently added more records to our collection of Education Department officials’ calendars. The records, from 2016 and 2017, show the lobbying efforts of Lisa Wardell, then the CEO of DeVry Education Group, to roll back the Obama administration’s gainful employment rule. The rule required most for-profit colleges and career training programs to show that their graduates’ loan payments were not too high relative to their earnings — an important issue to DeVry, which had to pay a $100 million settlement in 2016 for falsely advertising graduates’ success. Secretary Betsy DeVos repealed the rule in July 2019.