The Justice Department turned over paperwork Thursday morning showing that Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn’t tell the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador when he applied for his security clearance.
The revelation came because a new watchdog group successfully sued for Sessions’ clearance application under the Freedom of Information Act—though the document they got was heavily redacted.
The Justice Department says Sessions wasn’t obligated to tell the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador because he had them in his capacity as a U.S. senator. But Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, the watchdog group that got the DOJ to release the document, said Sessions should have revealed the meetings.
“We are not talking about the ambassador from the Vatican or from Canada,” he said. “We are talking about the ambassador from Russia, about whom there is common knowledge there are significant espionage concerns. You should not get cute with questions from the FBI related to national security.”
Using his extensive FOIA experience, he’s moved to the other side of those lawsuits, heading a group with six attorneys and three additional staffers looking to dredge up as much information as possible on the new administration—starting with Sessions.
“Through a failure of reading comprehension, they didn’t realize we asked for Jeff Sessions’ signature block as well,” said Evers. “There’s nothing on the document that shows that it’s Jeff Sessions.”
Sessions told the Senate under oath that he hadn’t met with Russians during the presidential campaign, though he had had two conversations with the Russian ambassador. After news broke about those conversations, he recused himself from the Russia probe, which has since been handed over to special counsel Robert Mueller.
American Oversight will return to court next month in hopes of getting more information from the DOJ on Sessions’ clearance form.
But it isn’t stopping there.
Evers and his group are also pursuing a host of other documents, including communications related to the health care bill. They got a tranche of documents from the Office of Management and the Department of Health and Human Services about the negotiations leading up to the passage of the House’s bill, and will get more emails July 31 and Sept. 5.
They are also digging for documents related to Ivanka Trump and are suing the departments of Commerce, Education, Labor, and Treasury for communications the president’s daughter has had with senior officials there.
The group is small but could do to the Trump administration what Judicial Watch did to Hillary Clinton.
Evers is more aware than most of the extraordinary power of the Freedom of Information Act. A litigator himself, he spent two and a half years as an Obama appointee at the State Department, where he helped handle the release of documents from investigations into the Benghazi attack and Clinton’s personal email server.
As a political employee, Evers had no role in deciding which documents were released, or when. He told The Daily Beast his job was to ensure the various congressional committees investigating Clinton’s emails and Benghazi got documents that the agency released because of FOIA requests.
“No investigator likes to be the last to know,” Evers said. “And so one of the main things that we did was to ensure that if a document came up in one context, that it was transferred over to the other investigations to ensure the disclosures went to everybody they should.”
FOIA requests can have enormous political impact. The year before the 2016 presidential election, the State Department had to release thousands of pages of emails that Clinton sent through her personal server, and the content of those emails generated hundreds of additional stories.
The revelations put Clinton’s email server in the headlines for months and months, and did nothing to help her shake her reputation of being secretive.
That said, American Oversight is much smaller than Judicial Watch, which has been embarrassing both Republicans and Democrats with its own dogged litigation for decades.
Still, six litigators can do a lot of damage. The Trump administration will give them plenty to work with, and they know it.
“We’re holding the Trump administration accountable—because Congress won’t,” reads its homepage.