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Groups see new openings for digging up dirt on Trump

Public interest groups determined to stay focused on the Trump administration say they have new openings for unearthing information now that the past government’s political appointees have departed.

Various groups that flooded the government with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests say the departures have greased the wheels of various agencies’ public records shops. 

Requests ranging from the pandemic response and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol are moving forward, potentially aiding activists eager to bring new dirt to light.

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“I think there's a ton left to understand about what went wrong during the Trump administration and what norms were broken, what ethical violations occurred, and I do think we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg,” said Lisa Gilbert with Public Citizen. She also founded the Not Above the Law coalition of more than 100 different interest groups.

And representatives of whistleblowers who spoke out against the Trump administration are optimistic additional witnesses will step forward without the same fears of retaliation.

“This is the ideal time to step forward — while the facts are still fresh, before memories fade, while the evidence is readily available, while public interest remains high,” said David Seide with the Government Accountability Project.

Seide represents current and former government workers who blew the whistle on the forced hysterectomies of women detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as workers at Voice of America and its oversight agency who complained of political interference by Trump appointees.

“People should come out now if nothing else to provide leads for investigators. They know where the bodies are buried. They know who participated in these events. They know where the emails are. They know what records exist and don't exist,” he said. “The Trumpites know that too, but they don't control the archives anymore.”

What hasn’t been revealed by personnel could still be revealed by documents. Critics say the roadblocks put in place by the Trump administration are coming down.

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“There was this massive, massive issue during the Trump administration with compliance with public records laws. They put in political appointees to review public records requests,” said Jordan Libowitz, communications director with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

“They’d give it to you once you sued. But most people can't sue,” he said.

The pace has changed with Biden officials in public record offices.

“Things that were blocked are suddenly no longer being blocked. All kinds of information is about to come out, and we’re not letting go of that,” Libowitz said.

CREW’s big focus has been on any attempts by the Trump administration to interfere with the special election in Georgia as well as how agencies responded in the lead-up to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, which has made “Trump accountability” one of its top priorities, said his group is starting to get FOIA requests back on Ukraine, the response to the pandemic and former Attorney General William BarrBill BarrCNN legal analyst joins DOJ's national security division Barr threatened to resign over Trump attempts to fire Wray: report DOJ faces big decision on home confinement MORE’s final months in office.

“Losing an election is not actually accountability for some of that conduct,” he said. “And our philosophy is that if we don't expose what happened and the way that administration hurt people and violated laws and norms then they will transform that lack of accountability into impunity, and others will copy what they did,” he said.

Still, even if groups uncover additional ethical lapses, they could face challenges in forwarding their findings.

“Ethics laws don't attach to somebody in perpetuity so it can be hard to hold the individual actors accountable when they leave office,” said Delaney Marsco, an ethics expert with the Campaign Legal Center. 

And even if they discover untoward behavior, they may hit a familiar roadblock: While unethical, actions uncovered may not be illegal.

Marsco said Trump cast aside a number of government norms, such as refusing to divest from his businesses.

“The reason it's so bad isn't that he broke the law, it’s that there wasn't a law and he was allowed to do it, and he did it,” she said.

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Still, Evers suggested the investigations could lead to new information being brought to light.

“Former President TrumpDonald TrumpWarren says Republican party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' More than 75 Asian, LGBTQ groups oppose anti-Asian crime bill McConnell says he's 'great admirer' of Liz Cheney but mum on her removal MORE is facing criminal and civil liability for his misconduct around the insurrection and actions around the election so that moment of accountability is still available for him,” he said.  “And other appointees are fanning out around the country working at companies and biding their time before they can join the government. And they would like nothing more than for evidence to never come out about what they did.”

Beyond digging into the past, public interest groups are also putting their efforts behind codifying some of those norms into rules while shoring up other democracy measures, such as protections for whistleblowers and ensuring that presidential nominees must release their tax returns.

Many are coalescing behind a bill from Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDNC plans to project image calling GOP 'party of Trump' on his DC hotel after Cheney vote Democrats fundraise off of vote to remove Cheney from GOP leadership Free Speech Inc.: The Democratic Party finds a new but shaky faith in corporate free speech MORE (D-Calif.), the Protect Our Democracy Act, which is set to be reintroduced in the coming weeks. It would strengthen Congress’s subpoena power, bolster protections of inspectors general and increase penalties for those that violate the Hatch Act.  

Gilbert said the idea is to focus on “norms that people didn’t realize were only norms until Trump broke them.” 

“Compliance with subpoenas by the executive branch was something we took for granted would happen even if it took a while. The other stonewalling we saw during the Trump administration was completely unprecedented. It shows we didn't have enough on the books to protect that congressional prerogative,” she said. “This is more narrowly thinking about where a president that is unscrupulous can abuse the system.”