How 2 DC Watchdog Groups Blew Open The Trump Administration’s Deleted Texts Scandal

U.S. Department of Homeland Security logo on a white law enforcement vehicle.
WASHINGTON, USA - MARCH 7: The Department of Homeland Security logo is seen on a law enforcement vehicle in Washington, United States on March 7, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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The ongoing congressional investigations into the Jan. 6 riot have unfolded alongside a parade of fresh stories of potential cover-ups: Everything from a seven-hour gap in the President’s call logs to his efforts to destroy documents by flushing them down the toilet

A particularly eyebrow-raising set of recent discoveries has opened a new line of inquiry into the events surrounding the attack. And it came not from investigative journalists or the Jan. 6 committee’s fact-finding efforts, but thanks to the dogged pursuit of two watchdog groups.

The groups — Project On Government Oversight (POGO) and American Oversight — have separately helped to unearth the fact that text messages from around Jan 6 were expunged by multiple departments and agencies. POGO worked with whistleblower(s) from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s office to publicize the issue. For its part, American Oversight filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the Defense Department that revealed missing texts there, too.

The groups learned that not only had the text messages in question been lost – there were inexplicable delays in revealing that fact publicly.

The content of the missing texts was especially of interest after former White House aide Cassidy Hutchinson testified that she had heard second-hand a story about how Trump had an altercation with a Secret Service agent who refused to drive him to the Capitol on Jan. 6.

The revelations, taken together, have kicked off a new chapter of investigations into the infamous riot.

POGO’s big break

Ten days after the riot, four House committee chairs requested from several entities, including DHS, “all documents or materials that refer or relate to events that could or ultimately did transpire on January 6.” The request coincided with DHS Inspector General Joseph V. Cuffari’s own probe into the attack, and sought some of the same documents.

But some of the information they requested would soon be gone. The Secret Service, a division of DHS, apparently lost relevant texts when agents failed to back them up as part of a bizarre phone migration project. 

Over a year later, Cuffari claimed in a July 13 letter to Congress that the Secret Service misled him about the whereabouts of the lost messages: “The USSS erased those text messages after [the Inspector General’s office] requested records of electronic communications from the USSS, as part of our evaluation of events at the Capitol on January 6.”

Cuffari also shifted blame to DHS employees for holding up the investigation because they weren’t permitted to provide records directly to his office without a review by the department’s attorneys.

“This review led to weeks-long delays in OIG obtaining records and created confusion over whether all records had been produced,” he wrote.

The Cuffari letter raised plenty of questions, including why the information was just coming to light now.

“The U.S. Secret Service system migration process went forward on January 27, 2021, just three weeks after the attack on the Capitol in which the Vice President of the United States while under the protection of the Secret Service, was steps from a violent mob hunting for him,” the Jan. 6 Committee said in a statement on July 20, giving voice to some of the many questions raised.

POGO, it turned out, was about to publish an investigation that shed light on the whole situation. Two of their in-house investigators, Nick Schwellenach and Adam Zagorin, had been monitoring Cuffari for 15 months when they got a tip that he’d withheld the information, deepening the emerging scandal.

The DC-based independent watchdog group has investigated corruption and abuses of power in the federal government for decades, often by fielding tips from sources working in government. 

In late July, they reported that Cuffari had been briefed on the texts’ erasure as far back as February 2022, and he’d reportedly considered issuing a six-page management alert about the missing texts before deciding against it. The alert would have made the situation public. 

“We’ve been probing Cuffari’s handling of high-profile matters for more than a year, and have numerous sources providing us with insights,” Schwellenbach, one of POGO’s lead investigators on the story, told Talking Points Memo. “We were well-positioned to learn more about how he has failed to inform Congress in a timely way about deleted records related to January 6.”

This isn’t the first time the inspector general apparently misled investigators, which was part of why POGO had been following him: The Washington Post reported last week that Cuffari had previously been investigated for breaking ethics rules back when he oversaw a Justice Department inspector general field office in 2013.

Now, POGO is calling on the Biden administration to remove him. 

“Cuffari has made several inexplicable failures that indicate that he is unable or unwilling to keep Congress meaningfully informed of serious oversight issues under his purview, a key element of his mission,” Liz Hempowicz, POGO’s director of public policy, told TPM.

What about American Oversight?

American Oversight, meanwhile, requested text correspondences from employees of the Department of Defense and the Army six days after the riot occurred. The group, founded in 2017, has made a name for itself by issuing reams of FOIA requests to government agencies and publishing its findings. 

When the agencies failed to produce much information, the watchdog group sued them in federal  court on March 10, 2021.

As the lawsuit proceeded, the agencies presented the group with joint status reports throughout the year, but it wasn’t until March 2022 that they admitted that all texts from former employees, including top Trump administration figures, had been wiped at the end of Trump’s term — over a week after the group requested them.

“For those custodians no longer with the agency, the text messages were not preserved and therefore could not be searched,” the status report reads, “although it is possible that particular text messages could have been saved into other records systems such as email.”

That revelation, which CNN reported last week, had some intriguing similarities with DHS’ text message woes. 

American Oversight has since called for Attorney General Merrick Garland to carry out a cross-agency investigation into the text erasures, noting the similarities to the DHS situation. 

“There are still too many open questions about the role of the Pentagon, Secret Service, and others before and during the attack,” Heather Sawyer, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “Even without our request, DOD should have known that any text messages would be vital to ensuring accountability for January 6.”

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