The potential legal jeopardy for former Trump appointees varies from charges of illegal self-dealing to involvement in the January 6 coup attempt at the US Capitol.
During his time in office, former President Donald Trump was often accused of using his position to enrich himself and his family. To that end, Trump was sued multiple times for violating the Emoluments Clause of the United States Constitution, which prohibits elected officials from taking money or gifts. Those lawsuits were dismissed by the Supreme Court once Trump was out of office.
Trump currently faces multiple criminal and civil investigations, but he has already survived two impeachment trials and is unlikely to face consequences for any alleged wrongdoing in office. The same cannot be said of multiple Trump-appointed government officials, including at least one member of his presidential cabinet.
The potential legal jeopardy for former Trump appointees varies from charges of illegal self-dealing to involvement in the January 6 coup attempt at the US Capitol. Still other government officials who were appointed by Trump and remain in office could face investigations once they step down or are replaced, including the current postmaster general.
Former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao
On March 2, the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Office of Inspector General released a detailed report outlining its investigation into former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. In addition to being a member of Trump’s cabinet, Chao is the wife of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the daughter of James Chao, chief executive officer of the Foremost Group, a shipping company.
Per the report, the inspector general was charged with investigating “potential conflicts of interest and favoritism” on the part of Chao. This investigation was an extension of ethics probes that had begun in 2019 (Chao was appointed as Transportation Secretary in 2017).
There were accusations against Chao that the inspector general found did not merit further investigations, including claims that she had disproportionately directed DOT grants to Kentucky, the state McConnell represents. The inspector general also cleared Chao of any alleged wrongdoing related to her ownership of stock in Vulcan Materials, a construction company for which Chao once served on the board.
However, on four other matters related to the Office of the Secretary of Transportation (OST), the inspector general found there were grounds for criminal investigation:
a) tasking OST political appointees to contact the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about the status of a work permit application submitted by a foreign student studying at a U.S. university who was a recipient of Chao family philanthropy,
b) including family members and personal events in the Secretary’s planned, but subsequently cancelled, trip to China in November 2017,
c) providing DOT Public Affairs and media support to the Secretary’s father, and
d) using DOT resources and OST staff time for tasks for the Secretary that appear to be personal in nature.
In December 2020, the inspector general referred its investigation to the DOJ and the US Attorney’s Office for additional investigations, including potential criminal prosecution. However, neither the DOJ nor the USAO decided to pursue the case. Chao offered her resignation to Trump on January 7 and the investigation into her actions is now closed.
Former CEO of the US Agency for Global Media Michael Pack
In June 2020, Trump helped expedite the confirmation of Michael Pack to lead the US Agency for Global Media, which, among other outlets, oversees Voice of America (VOA), a government-funded, international media broadcaster. The confirmation process had been stalled because Pack, a conservative documentary filmmaker, was being investigated for illegal use of funds earned through his nonprofit group.
When President Joe Biden came into office, Pack quickly resigned after being alerted he would be removed by the new administration. Though his tenure in the position was short, Pack was criticized for politicizing an agency that is supposed to be a nonpartisan global news source. Pack was also accused of using taxpayer money to investigate former agency executives he had suspended.
Now, the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit organization that represents and advocates on behalf of whistleblowers, has unearthed documents that confirm Pack paid millions of agency dollars to the law firm McGuireWoods. The firm was hired to investigate the suspended executives, as well as to audit the email breach of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The Government Accountability Project called Pack’s actions “gross mismanagement, gross waste of taxpayer dollars and abuse of authority.” These findings could lead to a formal government investigation, which would only compound matters for Pack, who is also currently being sued by Washington, DC Attorney General Karl Racine for the alleged illegal use of nonprofit funds.
Former State Department aide Federico Klein
In perhaps one of the more bizarre twists out of the final days of the Trump administration, Federico Klein, a former aide at the State Department, has been arrested and charged for his involvement with the January coup attempt that had sought to overturn the election results.
Klein had formerly worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign and was appointed to the State Department just days after Trump took office in January 2017.
Klein is visible in video footage from the attack on the Capitol that resulted in five deaths, including one police officer. In the footage, Klein can be seen wearing one of Trump’s signature “Make America Great Again” red hats. One clip shows Klein pushing a riot shield back into an officer and attempting to incite the crowd to force their way through the police line.
Klein was arrested on March 4 and has been charged with obstructing Congress and assaulting officers using a dangerous weapon. There is no date yet for Klein’s trial.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy
Louis DeJoy became the postmaster general of the US Postal Service in June 2020. DeJoy, the former CEO of New Breed Logistics, was considered an odd choice at the time as he had no experience in the USPS. His nomination was opposed by Democrats because he had donated to Trump’s campaign and the Republican Party and the position is supposed to be nonpartisan.
Despite these objections, DeJoy was confirmed as Postmaster General and began to immediately make his impact on the agency. He slashed overtime pay for postal workers and reduced hours at post offices. The result of DeJoy’s changes was massive delays in mail delivery, which concerned many who feared those delays would lead to fewer people being able to vote by mail.
Though DeJoy reversed his changes, he was still called before Congress to testify about his actions as postmaster general.
Unlikely the other Trump appointees discussed above, DeJoy remains in his position and has indicated he wants to stay there. Though Biden cannot directly fire DeJoy, he has nominated three people to the Postal Service’s board of governors. That would give Democrats majority control of the board, which could then vote to remove DeJoy.
Many have called for DeJoy to be thoroughly investigated after thousands of mail-in ballots were delayed. Even after the election, the postal service has struggled with delayed deliveries. In testimony before the House Oversight Committee on Postal Service Finances and Operations in late February, DeJoy acknowledged the shortcomings of his leadership, but said he did not intend to quit.
On March 8, US Representative Tim Ryan called for a separate investigation into the USPS’ recent US$6 billion deal with Oshkosh Corporation to replace the agency’s vehicles. Ryan says there was a suspicious US$54 million purchase of Oshkosh stock less than a day before DeJoy announced the deal. Ryan has requested that the Securities and Exchange Commission investigate the trade.
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