Our latest Probe Into Violation of Anti-Propaganda Laws during COVID-19 Response
We sued the Trump administration for withholding records that could reveal whether four agencies have coordinated with conservative media outlets — including communications related to the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — in violation of federal laws aimed at guarding against government-sponsored propaganda. The case was filed against the Office of Management and Budget, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of the Treasury.Learn More
Coordination between Trump administration agencies and Fox News may violate anti-propaganda laws. Federal law prohibits Executive Branch officials from creating “covert propaganda,” defined as communications by private individuals that fail to disclose the government’s role as the source of the content.
The Trump administration is illegally withholding documents that could reveal whether Executive Branch agencies illegally coordinated with Fox News and similar media outlets. These agencies have either hired former Fox News contributors in key communications roles or had high-ranking officials frequently appear on Fox News and similar outlets. We’re investigating whether they are pushing illegal propaganda.
The possibility of such illegal coordination is fueled by the fact that at least a dozen former Fox employees have served in senior communications roles within the administration. For example:
- Jonathan Wachtel, who served as the Director of Communications for the U.S. Mission to the UN in 2017, was a Fox News producer for nearly two decades and worked on projects including a documentary special called, “Donald Trump the Disrupter”
- Tony Sayegh, the Treasury Department’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs until May 2019, was a regular Fox News contributor from 2009 until he entered the Trump administration. When Sayegh left the administration, he was replaced by Monica Crowley, a longtime Fox News personality.
In February 2019, we sued the Departments of State, Treasury, and Homeland Security, as well as the Small Business Administration, to reveal whether they have violated federal laws guarding against government-sponsored propaganda. Documents we uncovered through that lawsuit revealed Treasury officials dictating changes to Fox News coverage across multiple media platforms, so we requested that the Inspector General of the Treasury Department launch an immediate investigation.
To uncover the extent of the coordination, in September 2019 we filed a second lawsuit against the Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, Education, and Interior after they failed to release documents that could reveal whether these additional agencies covertly coordinated with Fox News and other similar media outlets to shape positive news coverage of the administration.
We and Restore Public Trust have already demanded an investigation following the revelation that a Fox News script was submitted to an EPA official for approval prior to being read on-air with no disclosure by a Fox News personality in the lead-in to an interview with EPA then-Administrator Scott Pruitt—a violation of anti-propaganda laws.
Additionally, we’ve requested that the White House Counsel investigate whether administration officials engaged in unlawful lobbying and government-sponsored propaganda by coordinating with Fox corporate executives to secure cover from the network they believed was needed to secure passage of the recently-enacted “First Step Act.”
In light of troubling and potentially unlawful emails that disclosed personally identifiable information, we called for an investigation into whether the DHS Office of Public Affairs violated federal regulations by leaking the immigration status of individuals accused of crimes to conservative media outlets to promote an anti-immigration narrative.
In June 2020, we sued the Trump administration again for withholding records that could reveal whether the Office of Management and Budget, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of the Treasury have coordinated with conservative media outlets — including communications related to the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic — in violation of federal laws aimed at guarding against government-sponsored propaganda.
This latest request could reveal additional improper coordination — perhaps most glaringly about the Trump administration’s deficient response to COVID-19, for which Fox News has helped engineer what one reporter called “an elaborate distraction campaign.”