Editors note: The free press is critical to our democracy. It allows us to get answers about how our government is functioning and hold it accountable for its actions. Protect Democracy team member Matt Lehrich wrote for CNN.com about how the daily White House press briefing, despite its drawbacks, makes our government more democratic and accountable.
The White House daily press briefing is often a predictable piece of kabuki theater.
Clinton-era press secretary Mike McCurry — widely considered one of the best to have manned the podium — famously stayed “deliberately uninformed” about the latest developments in the Monica Lewinsky scandal for the express purpose of being able to deflect questions without lying. And the realities of international diplomacy have, over decades, led spokespeople for presidents of both parties to offer near-identical pabulum on some of America’s most vexing foreign policy questions.
Indeed, the briefing routinely sheds more heat than light, and rarely produces new insight into our government’s inner workings. And, yet, getting rid of it would be bad for the country.
May 24, 2017 | Mic
A watchdog group of former Obama White House lawyers is suing for details on how President Donald Trump reportedly asked top intelligence officials to push back against an FBI probe of his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia.
May 24, 2017
Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that President Trump tried to pressure the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) to push back on the FBI investigation into Russia’s meddling in our election, and that Trump’s request was documented in a contemporaneous memo. Today, we’re suing the Trump Administration to make public that memo – and any other relevant documents about White House communications with NSA on the subject, including documents regarding reported attempts by senior White House officials to get the NSA to intervene with the FBI.
May 23, 2017
This memorandum addresses questions that have been raised regarding possible White House attempts to invoke Executive Privilege in order to restrict Congress’s access to testimony or written memoranda from fired FBI Director James Comey. President Trump may seek to assert privilege to prevent Congress from receiving memoranda Comey wrote documenting his conversations with President Trump or to block Comey from testifying. Indeed, the White House appears to have already raised privilege concerns with respect to the Russia investigation. In testimony before a Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee hearing, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper referenced “some executive privilege strictures requested by the White House.”
May 23, 2017 | POLITICO
A liberal watchdog group is demanding quick answers on what legal rationale supported President Donald Trump’s military strikes against Syria last month.
The Protect Democracy Project — an organization founded by former Obama administration lawyers — is asking a federal judge for an injunction ordering expedited responses to Freedom of Information Act requests the group filed last month asking the Pentagon, the State Department and the Justice Department to turn over all legal opinions justifying the April 6 strikes.
May 22, 2017 | Lawfare
Last week’s New York Times story detailing Benjamin Wittes’s conversations with then-FBI Director James Comey and Wittes’s own Lawfare post describe in some detail Director Comey’s concerns about inappropriate White House contacts with the Department of Justice. This is a profoundly important issue and one that goes beyond just whether the President interfered with or obstructed any particular investigation. The policies limiting White House-DOJ contacts—which until recently were fairly obscure—play a key role in protecting our constitutional democracy. While this is implicit in the reporting on the Trump-Comey interactions, it’s worth pausing a bit on why.
May 9, 2017
Statement from Protect Democracy Executive Director Ian Bassin on the Removal of FBI Director James Comey
“While there are plenty of reasons to fault Director Comey for decisions he has made, for the President to remove the person investigating his campaign for potentially conspiring with a foreign government is beyond Nixonian and threatens the heart and health of our democracy. We need an independent investigation now.”
May 8, 2017 | New York Times
A month after President Trump ordered a military strike on the Syrian regime as punishment for using chemical weapons, his administration has yet to offer a rationale for what lawful authority he had to carry out the attack.
Now, a government watchdog group run by former Obama administration lawyers is suing to force the Trump administration to disclose its legal theory — or concede that it launched the April 6 attack without thinking about the law. While the attack attracted bipartisan support as a political and policy matter, its legal basis was disputed.
May 8, 2017
Cross-posted at Lawfare
Just over a month ago, the Administration launched missile strikes against the Assad regime in Syria. The strikes followed a brutal chemical attack that killed scores of innocent civilians. We are all disturbed by Bashar al-Assad’s horrific attacks on his own citizens. But that cannot obscure the question of what the President’s legal authority was for the missile strikes, or whether he usurped power that belongs to Congress.
May 2, 2017 | Huffington Post
A nonprofit watchdog organization has filed suit against two federal agencies, seeking any documents concerning possible harassment of federal workers amid political suppression of their work. One of the agencies, the Department of Energy, requested information almost immediately after Donald Trump moved into the White House on workers who had links to climate change issues.
“We’re going to court because the integrity of the civil service is vital to our democracy and because the Trump administration has already demonstrated a troubling pattern of bullying civil servants and trying to silence dissent,” said a statement by Ben Berwick, a lawyer for United to Protect Democracy, the group that brought the suits.
May 1, 2017 | NPR
As Trump appointees take their new positions in the federal bureaucracy, a legal battle is escalating over alleged intimidation of the civil servants who make the government function.
The nonprofit United to Protect Democracy is suing the Departments of Energy and of Health and Human Services for records that would document or disprove such allegations. One of the group’s lawyers, Ben Berwick, wrote in an online post that the goal is “protecting the civil service from purges, intimidation or politicization.”
April 27, 2017 | Washington Post
Watchdog group, citing “integrity of civil service,” sues Trump to find out if feds are being bullied
A watchdog group led by former Obama administration lawyers filed lawsuits Thursday against three federal agencies to force them to release communications the group suspects show the Trump administration is bullying civil servants.
The complaints, filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, contend that the Department of Health and Human Services, Energy Department and State Department are violating the law by refusing to respond to requests under the Freedom of Information Act for communications about career employees between top White House political aides and their counterparts at the agencies.
April 27, 2017
Today we filed suit against two federal agencies and we are appealing the decision of a third in order to force the Trump Administration to come clean about its treatment of civil servants. We’re going to court because the integrity of the civil service is vital to our democracy and because the Trump Administration has already demonstrated a troubling pattern of bullying civil servants and trying to silence dissent.
When we formed Protect Democracy, we worked with experts on what keeps democracies healthy – and what leads to their decline – to identify several mission-critical principles to defend. One of those is protecting the civil service from purges, intimidation, or politicization.
April 19, 2017
Protect Democracy Calls on White House to Prevent Improper Political Meddling in Government Agencies
United to Protect Democracy is calling on the White House to issue and enforce a robust policy to prevent inappropriate political interference in federal government functions. For more than four decades, Administrations of both parties have committed to such policies, which help ensure that the government is run for the benefit of the public and not used as a tool to benefit political allies or punish political enemies of the President.
April 19, 2017 | Washington Post
Dueling letters from disparate coalitions with opposing perspectives demonstrate the dangers of politically contaminated federal employment at a time when congressional Republicans are moving to weaken civil service due process protections.
April 11, 2017 | Slate
Late last month, a group of 25 conservatives sent an open letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions in which they implored him to bring long-needed reforms to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. Among their suggestions: put an end to the division’s obsession with protecting the rights of minorities and “return to race-neutral Voting Rights Act enforcement.” The letter also recommended granting political appointees—the officials in the DOJ’s so-called front office—more power to decide who works in the division and minimizing the role of career attorneys “who are reliably opposed to President Trump’s agenda.”
April 11, 2017 | Take Care Blog
Last week, we posted about a letter that was sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions by a veritable rogues gallery of lawyers opposed to the enforcement of anti-discrimination provisions in federal voting rights law. As we noted, “not only do Trump and Sessions’ more vocal supporters hope that this administration will stop using the Civil Rights Division to shield people of color from discrimination, but they also hope to use the Civil Rights Division as a sword to subject vulnerable minorities to still more discrimination.”
April 11, 2017
Dear Attorney General Sessions:
We write to you about ensuring that hiring and other personnel decisions in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division are based on merit, rather than improper considerations such as actual or perceived political affiliation, as required by law. On March 28, you received an open letter from 25 signatories, suggesting certain “internal reforms” of the Civil Rights Division. Although we disagree with many aspects of that letter, we write now to address a specific concern with the recommendation that “[t]he Assistant Attorney Generals in each component Division must preserve or reacquire hiring authority and not leave the decisions in the hands of career bureaucrats who are reliably opposed to President Trump’s agenda.”
April 7, 2017
Dear Mr. McGahn,
We write to request that you publicly disclose the legal opinion justifying the President’s authority to order military strikes against the Syrian regime on April 6, 2017.
We are all horrified by the atrocities that have been committed against the people of Syria for far too long. But however the United States responds to these brutal acts must be rooted in domestic and international law.
April 7, 2017
Today, we’ve opened an investigation into an important issue for our democracy. Just now, we filed open records requests with seven national security offices demanding to know what – if any – legal justification President Trump relied on before launching military strikes against the Syrian regime. We’re also calling on the White House to immediately disclose the legal basis for the President’s actions.
March 24, | Washington Post
A watchdog group led by former Obama administration lawyers is calling for an investigation into whether the White House is trying to interfere with the Justice Department’s decision to block the merger of health insurance giants Anthem and Cigna.
“We are concerned that Administration officials may have engaged in inappropriate conduct regarding the Anthem-Cigna litigation,” Ian Bassin, the executive director of United to Protect Democracy, wrote…
March 23, 2017
United to Protect Democracy – a nonpartisan, nonprofit group formed by former White House lawyers – is calling for a thorough investigation of potentially inappropriate contacts between the White House and the Department of Justice (DOJ) regarding the proposed merger between health insurance giants Anthem and Cigna.
March 17, 2017 | POLITICO
Reince Priebus’s request that the FBI refute a report of Donald Trump associates’ contacts with Russian intelligence appears to have violated the White House’s policy restricting political interference in pending investigations, according to a copy of the policy obtained by POLITICO.
March 8, 2017
The promise that every American will be treated equally under the law and that none is above the law is a bedrock principle of American democracy. The freedom from political influence — real or perceived — on law enforcement underpins all of our other freedoms. By contrast, political influence or interference in law enforcement has been a clear hallmark distinguishing authoritarian regimes from true democracies around the globe.
February 23, 2017 | POLITICO
Top lawyers who helped the Obama White House craft and hold to rules of conduct believe President Donald Trump and his staff will break ethics norms meant to guard against politicization of the government — and they’ve formed a new group to prepare, and fight.