In his victory lap after the Senate acquitted him on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, President Donald Trump called out the “leaks and liars” that led to his impeachment trial.
He got one thing right, sort of.
By design, there were no witnesses and limited evidence in his trial. So the most important information about his decision to halt military aid to Ukraine, the issue at the heart of his impeachment, didn’t come from the trial, but from a whistle-blower, from former national security adviser John Bolton, and from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests filed by journalists.
If Bolton had still been in the administration, Trump probably would have fired him, just as he did two key witnesses in the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry: Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, a director on the National Security Council. And it has been reported that the administration may rescind Elaine McCusker’s nomination for permanent Pentagon comptroller. E-mails from McCusker questioned Trump’s decision to freeze military aid to Ukraine. Loyalty to the president appears to matter more than loyalty to our democracy.
In this climate of secrets, shaming, and reprisals, the Freedom of Information Act is more important than ever.
Throughout the impeachment process, journalists have used the law to chase information that members of the House couldn’t get through subpoenas, witnesses, or other means. That boggles the mind in a system of government built on checks and balances — and in a national moment when the stakes couldn’t be higher.
FOIAs can still unearth new information about the actions that led to the president’s impeachment. MuckRock, a nonprofit FOIA filing platform used by newsrooms around the country, says these requests have been filed on their platform under the following topics: Trump, 905; Russia, 130; Mueller, 17; and Ukraine, 16. Searches through FOIA Online, the federal government’s official portal, indicate thousands of more requests on these topics.
At the Center for Public Integrity, we have been using the power of FOIA to try to force the administration to release unredacted e-mails between the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Defense about the aid halt. Blacked-out versions of these documents were released to Public Integrity under court order in two batches in December. The second batch, released late at night five days before Christmas, renewed the conversation about the timeline for the president’s decision to halt aid to Ukraine.
On Feb. 1, hours after senators cleared the way for Trump’s acquittal, the administration filed its legal argument for why substantial parts of 111 e-mails should remain redacted. An attorney for the Justice Department wrote that 24 of the e-mails were protected by “presidential privilege” because they reflect communications by “either the President, the Vice President, or the President’s immediate advisers regarding presidential decision-making about the scope, duration and purpose of the hold on military assistance to Ukraine.”
This is just a variation of what we have heard before. Throughout our legal fight under FOIA, the government has claimed that the documents are privileged and that public scrutiny would inhibit the free discussion among officials necessary for good policy-making. We couldn’t disagree more. The messages’ disclosure is essential for citizens to understand and debate the actions of the president and his administration, which were found by the Government Accountability Office to have violated the law.
Our fight won’t end with the president’s acquittal. The truth matters, and people should know about an unfolding chapter in our democracy that is destined for the history books.
Public Integrity’s legal battle with the administration points to a larger problem in our democracy and just why FOIA matters: We are in an era of limited information and unlimited disinformation. The rules surrounding the impeachment trial simply legitimized the administration’s strategy of casting doubt on facts while redacting critical public information — this time, in plain sight in the Senate.
For more than a half-century, FOIA has helped keep our elected officials honest. Without it, information we often take for granted — from consumer safety to political surveillance — would never have seen sunlight.
We wouldn’t know that the government was surveilling Black Lives Matter activists.
We wouldn’t know that coal miners were being stiffed out of health benefits for black lung disease.
And we wouldn’t know the timeline in Trump’s decision to halt military aid to Ukraine.
The president may think he has settled scores and settled the matter of his impeachment, but the fight for information about the actions that led to his trial won’t end with his acquittal.
Susan Smith Richardson is CEO of the Center for Public Integrity. A version of this column first appeared in Nieman Reports.