FOIAing the Trump Administration: challenging prevailing narratives

FOIAing the Trump Administration: challenging prevailing narratives

How public records upended narratives about FBI Deputy Director Anthony McCabe and Obama’s influence on net neutrality rules

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Edited by JPat Brown

FOIA is most commonly considered a reporter’s and citizen’s tool for establishing hard facts: dates, dollar amounts, data, etc. But FOIA is also useful in the trickier area of narrative. The week, we take a look a some examples of how FOIA was used to challenge a prevailing narrative from press coverage of the administration or that the administration itself sought to advance.

You can use FOIA to hold the Trump administration accountable by filing a records request of your own, following MuckRock’s “FOIA the Trump Administration” project, and joining our Slack channel to share ideas and get help with your requests. If you have a Trump administration related FOIA you would like us to highlight, share it over email, Twitter, or Facebook and we may include them in the next roundup.

Did FBI Deputy Director Anthony McCabe oversee a conflicted Clinton investigation?

A narrative about Federal Bureau of Investigations Deputy Director Anthony McCabe began with an October, 2016 Wall Street Journal article, which noted his wife had received a donation to her Virginia State Senate election campaign from Governor Terry McAuliffe’s political action committee. From there, conservative media advanced the narrative that the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server had been conflicted and that the current investigations into President Trump are overseen by officials who are biased against him. McCabe was even mentioned by Trump himself in a December, 2017 tweet.

Documents released via FOIA show that McCabe was not in charge of the Clinton investigation while his wife was running for office as a Democrat and that he followed FBI protocol for disclosing conflicts of interest during his wife’s campaign. They also show that early on in the news coverage of the McAuliffe PAC donation, the FBI felt that the prevailing narrative was full of omissions.

In a helpful thread, Matt Tait of the University of Texas at Austin breaks down what the documents released through FOIA reveal about McCabe and the FBI’s conduct in this matter:

Did the Obama administration pressure the FCC into adopting net neutrality rules?

In their quest to repeal net neutrality rules, Federal Communications Commission head Ajit Pai and his allies advanced a particular narrative - net neutrality rules had only be adopted in the first place, they asserted, because the Obama administration had improperly pressured the FCC to institute them. As an independent regulatory agency, the FCC is supposed to remain “free from undue influence” by the White House.

Reporters from Motherboard realized that congressional Republicans had asked the FCC’s Office of the Inspector General to investigate the Obama administration’s influence on the 2015 net neutrality vote. This meant, the narrative asserted by Pai was something an independent office had investigated and made a determination as to its truth - and that these records were subject to FOIA.

It turns out the IG found “no evidence of secret deals, promises, or threats from anyone outside the Commission, nor any evidence of any other improper use of power to influence the FCC decision-making process.” This document knocks down one of Commissioner Pai’s chief justifications for repealing net neutrality rules, but was not made public before the vote.

An important aside: Because MuckRock adamantly believes in thanking government officials who make transparency possible, we would like to note that Wendy Hadfield, a paralegal at FCC OIG who handled Motherboard’s FOIA request, noted the newsworthiness of the information and processed their request in just one day. Thanks, Wendy!

What narratives surrounding or emanating from the Trump administration do you think could use more investigation with FOIA? Join our Slack channel to discuss and get help with your requests.

Image via White House Flickr