When Donald Trump took office promising to “drain the swamp,” many Americans expected him to release an avalanche of information and kick-start investigations into scandals from the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
That hasn’t happened. The defining moment so far is the Justice Department’s recent decision not to pursue criminal charges against Lois Lerner, the IRS official at the center of alleged efforts to muzzle advocacy groups, especially conservative ones.
“There has been a remarkable lack of accountability,” said Tom Fitton, president of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch. “Today, you would think government is defending the Hillary Clinton administration.”
Some controversies from the last administration do have staying power. There are active investigations into the apparently widespread spying on Americans during the Obama years, including the “unmasking” of Trump associates in intelligence reports. But political storms with still-unanswered questions have faded from prominence, in part because Obama is no longer in power and the Trump era has been tumultuous.
The lack of action also suggests a deeper issue: how the permanent state protects itself. Even a new administration vowing change inevitably becomes part of it.
“There is always an institutional prerogative involved, meaning protecting the bureaucracy,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who led numerous investigations while chairing the House Oversight Committee. “All of the information should have been turned over on day one of the new administration, but they want to protect the privilege. They want to preserve the right to withhold information and documents for some other scandal that’s bound to occur on their watch.”
Several scandals remain alive largely because of the emergence of an increasingly powerful force in American politics: outside groups funded by deep-pocketed donors and armed with highly trained lawyers and the Freedom of Information Act. Judicial Watch, for example, has almost single-handedly kept the Hillary Clinton email story alive through public-records litigation, after Trump reneged on his election season vow to seek a special prosecutor who would deliver on the demands of his followers to “Lock her up!”
Congress isn’t completely on the sidelines. But some of its work remains a matter of conjecture because it is being done in closed sessions of Senate and House oversight panels. Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee, wary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election meddling, believe the unmasking affair warrants the appointment of another special prosecutor, a request it recently sent to the Department of Justice along with a long list of unanswered queries.
“These questions cannot, for history’s sake, and for the preservation of an impartial system of justice, be allowed to die on the vine,” the Republican committee members wrote.
Here is what is known and unknown about contentious Obama-era issues – some in limbo, some that intertwine with each other and a few that seem to keep growing even as the period fades into history.
Iran Nuclear Deal
What it was: A 2015 deal between the U.S. and other world powers and Iran designed to curb Iran’s development of nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. Critics denounced the pact as easily violated and a betrayal of global security.
Key details: Ballistic missiles were not covered, including the possibility of Iran cooperating with North Korea. Sanctions relief was immediate, removing incentives for Iran to comply later. And the U.S. flew $1.7 billion in hard cash as settlements to Iran under the deal – $400 million of which coincided with the release of four Americans detained there. Many said that looked like ransom.
Investigation: None. Thus far, Iran appears to be in technical compliance, although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson argues that by supporting terrorist groups Iran is violating the deal’s wider purpose of bringing it into the fold of nations. The U.S. is hamstrung by the agreement’s narrow focus, which is apparently a source of frustration to President Trump, who pilloried it as “an embarrassment to the United States,” in his September U.N. speech.
Outcome: Pending. The Trump administration must recertify Iran’s compliance every 90 days. Despite its criticism of the deal, it has done so twice. The next deadline is Oct. 15. Trump can scuttle the deal at any time, since Obama chose to put it in place unilaterally, bypassing Senate ratification that would make it a binding treaty. Some experts believe keeping the status quo serves American interests because the pact has complicated Iran’s ability to acquire plutonium and enriched uranium.
“Unmasking” and Domestic Surveillance
What it was: Obama officials requested that the identities of Trump associates swept up in intelligence agencies’ intercepts of foreigners’ phone calls and emails be revealed, or “unmasked.” These were the latest episodes of Obama-era monitoring of Americans, including members of Congress, opponents of the Iran nuclear deal and journalists.
Key detail: In 2011, the Obama administration created a loophole that, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) complained, allowed the National Security Agency to conduct “backdoor searches” of “incidental collection” of U.S. citizens’ communications.
Investigation: Ongoing in Congress, but only behind closed doors. Many potential witnesses have yet to testify, including former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, who reportedly sought hundreds of unmaskings in the closing months of the Obama administration, and whose authority for seeking them isn’t clear. In September, CNN reported that the FBI had former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort wiretapped before and after the election.
Outcome: Pending. Apart from congressional inquiries, investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson is suing the Department of Justice for what she alleges was the deliberate and illegal hacking of her work computers as she investigated federal law enforcement operations under Obama. The Justice Department under Trump has continued to fight her, she says. “From spying on Trump to journalists, look at the government patterns,” she wrote recently on her blog, where she keeps a surveillance timeline.
What it was: Lurid opposition research against Trump imputing a nefarious Russian role in his campaign. The Beltway opposition research outfit that commissioned the report, Fusion GPS, was supposedly bankrolled first by “Never Trump” Republican interests, then by Democrats after his nomination.
Key details: Exactly who paid for the dossier and the FBI’s role remain mysteries.
Investigation: The Justice Department is resisting Senate investigators who want to know more about the FBI’s interactions with Christopher Steele, a former British spy hired by Fusion to dig up Russian dirt for the dossier. A few weeks before the 2016 election, Steele took his information to the FBI, which agreed “to pay him to continue his work," according to a Washington Post report.
Although the dossier raised questions that helped lead to Mueller’s appointment, it provided nothing concrete regarding collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. Parts of it, however, have reinforced the case for Russian meddling in last year’s election. Glenn Simpson, founding partner of Fusion GPS, spoke privately with Senate Judiciary Committee staffers for more than 10 hours in August. Details of the meeting have not been released, but Simpson’s lawyer said Fusion GPS “stands by” its work.
Hillary Clinton Email Affair
What it was: Hillary Clinton’s use of an unsecured private server while secretary of state, rather than the State Department email system. Her denials aside, she received top-secret information via this arrangement. Aides deleted tens of thousands of emails; she claimed they were personal. None of this was illegal, Clinton held. Many disagreed, noting that several other public officials, including Gen. David Petraeus, were punished for mishandling classified information.
Key details: The email affair intertwines with other matters viewed by many as scandals:
- Benghazi: The server’s existence came to light in the congressional investigation into the fatal 2012 terror attack on the U.S. consulate there.
- DNC hack: Clinton was dogged throughout the campaign by related disclosures from her emails and an outside hack of Democratic National Committee email publicized by WikiLeaks. They included revelations of preferential treatment for donors to the Clinton family foundation while she was secretary of state.
- Tarmac rendezvous: The FBI investigation into Clinton’s email occasioned another furor, Bill Clinton’s 2016 airport meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch
Investigation: At the height of Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency, congressional and FBI inquiries brought forth startling revelations. The Clinton camp claimed that some 30,000 of its emails had been lost. Also lost was a laptop sent in the mail. Her team used “Bleach Bit” software to wipe her server clean. A team of her attorneys who lacked security clearance to view classified material culled the emails before turning them over to investigators.
In April 2016, with both the investigation and campaign in full swing, Obama interposed himself in the case, declaring that Clinton’s use of a private server had not endangered national security. On the campaign trail, Trump joked that perhaps the Russians, reported to have hacked the DNC, could find the missing emails.
Outcome: In July 2016, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that top-secret emails had been found in Clinton’s communications and that she acted “extremely carelessly” with classified material. Nevertheless, he said that because she did not intend to break the law, no criminal case would be brought against her. Then, with Trump hammering her on the campaign trail as “Crooked Hillary,” Comey announced on Oct. 28 that the investigation had been reopened to examine emails forwarded by top Clinton aide Huma Abedin to a home computer used by her husband, disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner. On Nov. 6, Comey closed the reopened investigation, again with no action against Clinton. Two days later, Clinton lost the election to Trump, after once seeming to be a shoo-in. In her new book, “What Happened,” she blames the “email craziness” as a major factor.
Some groups and individuals have continued to look into the email scandal, though the Trump administration is not readily forthcoming with documents. Judicial Watch has numerous lawsuits pending, and on Sept. 14 said the latest release of State Department documents provided more examples of classified information transmitted on unsecured devices and “many incidents of Hillary Clinton donors receiving special favors from the State Department.”
Bill Clinton-Loretta Lynch Tarmac Meeting
What it was: On June 27, 2016, five days before FBI agents interviewed Hillary Clinton regarding her email, former President Bill Clinton visited then Attorney General Loretta Lynch on her plane while their separate jets sat on a tarmac in Phoenix. Disclosure of the meeting raised suspicions that Clinton was looking to quash the investigation into his wife.
Key detail: Both parties insisted that they chatted only about innocuous topics like grandchildren for roughly 45 minutes.
Investigation: Judicial Watch and the American Center for Law and Justice sought information about the meeting in public-records requests, with little success. Some heavily redacted records show officials concerned about the “optics” of the meeting and drawing up talking points to discuss it. “I think there’s plenty more,” Fitton told RCI. “Certainly their answers on this in the past have not been, how shall I put this, accurate.”
Outcome: Lynch conceded the meeting could have the appearance of impropriety and recused herself from the email inquiry. In an extraordinary step, she said she would delegate to the FBI the decision on whether to indict Clinton -- even though the bureau, like the police, normally only investigates. Just over a week later, Comey cleared Hillary Clinton (the first time). A year later, after President Trump fired him, Comey suggested that Lynch might have seen Hillary Clinton’s emails as a political rather than criminal issue -- and given him a cue -- when in 2015 she instructed him “not to call it an investigation but instead to call it a matter.”
What it was: Comey drafted a memo in 2016 exonerating Hillary Clinton of criminal wrongdoing regarding her emails before the FBI’s investigation was complete.
Key detail: Comey drafted the memo before agents had interviewed Clinton and some of her closest aides. Comey critics believe this suggests the fix was in for Clinton.
Investigation: GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham announced on Aug. 31 that former Comey aides had testified about the draft memo. They, with other Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, have requested more information about it. Trump was quick to call attention to the disclosure, tweeting that it reflects “a rigged system!”
Outcome: Pending. If Comey prematurely cleared Hillary Clinton of wrongdoing, it would undermine his credibility as a witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump-Russia affair – including into the president’s firing of Comey himself.
IRS Targeting Affair
What it was: The Internal Revenue Service heavily scrutinized and stalled nonprofits’ applications for tax-exempt status – especially those from conservatives – before the 2010 and 2012 elections, effectively sidelining them from the campaigns.
Key detail: Lois Lerner, director of the IRS Exempt Organizations Unit, initially blamed the targeting on lower-level "front line people" in the IRS Cincinnati office. This was false.
Investigation: Congressional investigators were stymied by hostile IRS witnesses and claims of lost emails. As hearings proceeded, Obama publicly declared there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” in the affair. Two inspectors general reports have found that far more conservative groups than liberal ones received extra scrutiny, usually by officials in Washington D.C. Recently, federal judges have ruled in favor of plaintiffs suing the IRS.
Outcome: Some high-level IRS officials resigned or retired. Republicans have called unsuccessfully for the ouster of Commissioner John Koskinen, who reportedly had amicable dealings with Trump in the private sector going back decades. The Trump Justice Department in September decided not to prosecute Lerner, who had retired with full pension benefits after declaring her innocence and then invoking her Fifth Amendment rights before Congress. “This is exactly what frustrates the American people about Washington,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
In addition, private groups are suing the IRS. The American Center for Law and Justice, for example, is representing 36 plaintiffs. In July a federal judge hearing that case ordered the IRS to turn over information explaining why applications were stalled and to identify who made those decisions.
What it was: Solyndra, a California solar panel manufacturer, took more than $500 million in loan guarantees from President Obama’s stimulus program, then went bust when panel prices cratered, leaving taxpayers with the loss. Conservatives made it the poster child for green boondoggles during the Obama administration.
Key detail: As clear warning signs were ignored, President Obama visited Solyndra’s California plant in 2010, touting it as an example of his green energy plans just months before Solyndra admitted to the Energy Department that it was in danger of collapse.
Investigation: After a four-year investigation, the Energy Department’s inspector general concluded in 2015 that Solyndra misled federal officials to secure its federal money, inflating the value of contract commitments and the prices it could charge. The report also faulted the Obama administration for not fully vetting the project because of “political pressure” from top Democrats and Solyndra. It also disclosed emails suggesting that the Energy Department had asked Solyndra to delay laying off hundreds of workers until after the 2010 midterm elections.
Outcome: Obama's Justice Department concluded it had insufficient evidence to indict anyone
connect to Solyndra. The Energy Department said the debacle made it more rigorous in scrutinizing loan applications. But even today it is almost impossible to know how much Washington spends on green initiatives because the money comes from myriad departments and agencies. In 2010, for example, the GAO reported that “23 agencies and their 130 sub-agencies implemented 679 renewable energy initiatives.”
Fast and Furious
What it was: The most prominent of federal operations that allowed weapons from the U.S. to pass into the hands of suspected gun smugglers so the arms could be traced to Mexican drug cartels. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lost track of hundreds of firearms, many of which have been linked to crimes.
Key detail: Two of the lost guns were recovered in the Arizona desert near the scene of the fatal shooting of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in December 2010, drawing intense scrutiny to the program from Republicans and media, especially conservative outlets.
Investigation: In March 2011, Obama declared that if “a serious mistake” had been made, “then we’ll find out and we’ll hold somebody accountable.” In June 2012, his administration invoked executive privilege to withhold documents from congressional committees. As a result, Attorney General Eric Holder became the first Cabinet member ever held in contempt of Congress. Some aspects of the case remain before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson. Stonewalling allowed the Obama administration to run out the clock on a major scandal, Congressman Issa claims. While Jackson “often gave us the decision we were entitled to,” Issa said, “it took forever.”
Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member on the House oversight committee, said Republicans have “an unfortunate record in investigations in which they accuse first and investigate later – repeatedly finding nothing to substantiate their wild claims. Over and over again, they tried to claim that all roads led to the White House, and over and over again they were wrong.”
Outcome: Fewer than half of the 2,000 or so firearms purchased in straw transactions monitored by the ATF have been recovered. Similarly, while some purchasers were arrested and indicted, the operation did not lead to the arrest of any high-level targets within the Sinaloa or other Mexican drug cartels.
In August 2011, two top officials resigned: the acting head of ATF, Kenneth Melson, and the U.S. Attorney for Arizona Dennis Burke. Since then, however, all investigations seem to have petered out.
What it was: Bureaucratic snafus and long delays resulted in military veterans dying in 2014 while on waiting lists to see physicians in the Department of Veterans Affairs health system, which serves more than 9 million military retirees.
Key detail: Between 35 and 40 vets died in the Phoenix VA system, making it the focal point of the scandal.
Investigation: Both the White House and Congress announced inquiries, and the FBI opened a criminal investigation. A House panel discovered that at the same time vets were dying on waiting lists, nearly 500 VA executives were awarded more than $2.4 million in bonus pay. It also found that the VA had falsified logs to erase many wait times that had exceeded 14 days.
Outcome: Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki resigned and Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA’s top health official, retired early. By the end of 2014, Congress had appropriated an additional $16 billion in VA spending. The agency says it has taken steps to address its shortcomings, all of which improved wait times for veterans – from 32 days in 2014 to 2.5 days in 2017 on average for urgent referrals to see a specialist.
In September, the Washington Post reported that during a 10-day work trip to Europe in July, President Trump’s Veterans Affairs Secretary, David Shulkin, attended a Wimbledon championship tennis match, toured Westminster Abbey and took a cruise on the Thames, with taxpayers picking up costs for his wife too.
What it was: Four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in a coordinated attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on the 2012 anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Key details: President Obama’s whereabouts and actions as the night unfolded aren’t clear. The administration did not respond to Stevens’ persistent calls for more security before the attack and no aid was sent to the consulate during the attack. Afterward, administration officials – notably national security adviser Susan Rice, on four Sunday talk shows – described the attack as a spontaneous eruption of popular anger fomented by an anti-Islamic video produced by an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian resident of the United States. That filmmaker was detained by U.S. authorities for nearly a year.
Investigation: Congress held multiple hearings and various committees looked at the attacks, while the Obama administration dismissed them as a political witch hunt. An exasperated former Secretary of State Clinton famously asked at one hearing, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” At some point during the attack, both Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered some military assets to deploy to Benghazi but for unknown reasons those orders were never carried out. The U.S. vow to bring the perpetrators to justice bore some fruit in 2014 when American commandos seized Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged ringleader of the Benghazi attack, in a raid in Libya.
Outcome: The most comprehensive investigation, led by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., voted on its final report in July 2016. Gowdy’s committee uncovered evidence that Obama officials, including Hillary Clinton, knew from the start that the attack was a planned act of terror. The evidence suggests they blamed the video to limit the political fallout from the attacks as Obama campaigned for re-election. Abu Khattala's trial began last week in a Washington courtroom.
House IT Affair
What it is: Longtime information-technology employees of Democratic House members are under suspicion of stealing government equipment and illegally downloading files. The affair raises security concerns and holds the potential of embarrassing disclosures about Democrats, including Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, who chaired the DNC last year when it suffered an embarrassing hack of its records.
Key detail: The suspects were paid some $4 million for work that seems to have been poorly defined.
Investigation: There appear to be two current, parallel investigations, one conducted by the FBI, the other by U.S. Capitol Police. The roots of the episode trace back to 2004, when Imran Awan began working for Democratic lawmakers. He eventually developed a close relationship with Wasserman Schultz. Several of Awan’s family members were subsequently hired by Democrats. They had access to the emails and files of several Democratic representatives on the Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees.
In April, Capitol Police found a laptop in the Rayburn House Office Building that reportedly belonged to either the Awans or Wasserman Schultz. Other electronic devices have also been seized, and it remains unclear what investigators have salvaged from the computers or whether Imran Awan will cooperate. He was arrested at the airport in July trying to board a flight to his native Pakistan.
Outcome: Pending. Wasserman Schultz publicly attacked the Capitol Police and demanded they return the laptop to her or “face consequences.” After the story broke that the Awans were suspected of stealing equipment and illegally downloading files, Imran Awan’s wife, Hina Alvi, pulled the family’s children out of school and took them to Pakistan in March. Wasserman Schultz kept Imran Awan on her payroll for six months after he lost his security clearance. She told the Sun-Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale in early August that she acted out of concerns for Awan’s due-process rights and fears he might be the victim of racial and ethnic profiling. She said she “did the right thing” and would do it again.