This Is Still Happening is a feature in which Slate will attempt to offer an update on senior-level administration corruption, what could be done to bring the officials to account, and what Democrats are doing in response (generally, nothing). The 11th installment is about the postmaster general and Trump megadonor who is dismantling the United States Postal Service.
The Official: Louis DeJoy, postmaster general
What Is Still Happening: The mail keeps arriving late, even after a wave of national attention about the summer’s breakdown of the United States Postal Service under its recently installed postmaster general. And it appears, after DeJoy made a pair of congressional appearances amid a flurry of campaign news, that he is still covering up the extent to which he has debilitated Postal Service operations in the leadup to an election that will involve the highest levels of mail-in voting in history and which his boss, the president, has promised to sabotage by crippling the Postal Service. Oh, and also he may have committed a bunch of campaign finance felonies before entering the job. But we’ll get to that later.
DeJoy’s changes, which he claimed would increase efficiency, caused on-time delivery to deteriorate by at least 10 percent. Despite the hearings, numbers released just last week show that service still hasn’t recovered; meanwhile, it was reported that top Postal Service officials were already preparing excuses for ballot delivery delays, even after the postmaster promised state election officials and Congress that his organization would deliver ballots “securely and on time.”
DeJoy was named as postmaster general in May. There were many unusual things about the appointment. For one, DeJoy is the first postmaster general in 20 years not to have worked for the Postal Service. Second, the main reason DeJoy got the job seems to be that he has been a longtime Republican megadonor—prior to taking the gig, he was due to be the national finance chairman for last month’s Republican National Convention. Third, DeJoy was not on the list of 212 candidates elevated by the consulting firm that was in charge of recruitment for the position. Indeed, he was recommended by the Trump-appointed chairman of the USPS board of governors, Robert M. Duncan, another longtime Republican megadonor and a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. This happened after Duncan reportedly met with Trump Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about the previous postmaster’s ouster. And as Slate’s Aaron Mak reported, DeJoy’s interview process was considered quite literally a “joke” among the Trump-appointed members of the board of governors that decided the hire.
Once DeJoy was in the job, things became even more unusual. First, as part of a plan to cut costs, he mandated in July that carriers make changes to schedules that would dramatically cut hours and result in “mail left behind or mail on the workroom floor.” As these changes were taking place, midlevel managers reportedly circulated a memo saying that overtime would be “eliminated.” Meanwhile, a plan—that apparently predated DeJoy’s arrival—began to take out of operation 671 mail sorting machines this year, more than double the amount decommissioned in the past two years combined. The sorting capacity reduction was to take place in some of the country’s largest urban centers and in critical swing states. There were also widespread reports around this time of removals of blue mailboxes across the country. Finally, the Postal Service sent a letter in July to 46 states warning them that the Postal Service might not be able to meet deadlines for delivering election mail.
As a consequence of some or all of the changes—whether they originated with DeJoy or not—on-time delivery plummeted in mid-July, from about 93 percent to 83 percent. That loss of output has proved disastrous. The result has been countless stories of horrifying mail delays, such as reports of dead farm animals undelivered to rural farms, or rotting meat shipments, or an elderly Holocaust survivor who was left without his reparations check, or many, many, many stories of veterans and seniors not receiving prescription drugs on time.
It’s still an open question whether the changes that resulted in the widespread breakdown in service were motivated by sabotage or mere business-executive hubris. Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that Mnuchin attempted to leverage a $10 billion emergency loan to take control of Postal Service financial operations and package rates. Postal Service employees have said that they are concerned the changes are part of a plot to privatize the Postal Service. A board of governors vice chairman who stepped down in April due to politicization of the Postal Service, meanwhile, alleged that Mnuchin had sought to raise shipping prices in an effort to hurt Amazon on behalf of President Donald Trump. For his part, the president has said that he was blocking funding requests for the Postal Service because “they need that money in order to have the post office work so it can take all of these millions and millions of ballots.”
Whatever the motive is, the outcome is clear. Even after the uproar around the Postal Service resulted in DeJoy backtracking on a small and unspecified number of changes and promising to deliver election mail on time, delivery rates are still way down. While they have recovered slightly from the August trough, the USPS reported last week that on-time delivery was still 5 percent below normal standards in the last week in August. And in the face of expedited discovery demands as part of mounting lawsuits and a congressional subpoena sent last week, DeJoy still wouldn’t commit to offering regular updates on service conditions or to providing the documentation explaining his moves.
The election, meanwhile, is two months away.
How Long It Has Been Going On: While the battles over USPS budget shortfalls have been going on for years and the COVID-19 pandemic has had an effect on the Postal Service’s capacity since the spring, this summer’s collapse in service is the direct result of DeJoy’s elevation to the job. On July 10, DeJoy issued a memo announcing his changes. Service crashed the very next day and had not come close to recovering as of the last week of August, the most recent period for which there is public data.
As noted, prior to rapidly dismantling one of the oldest and most-cherished American institutions, DeJoy’s main occupation was raising bundles of cash for Trump and the Republican Party. In the past four years, he donated $1.2 million to the Trump Victory Fund, hundreds of thousands to individual Republican congressional candidates and campaign committees, and more than $1.3 million to the Republican National Committee.
As a side note, DeJoy’s pay-to-play lifestyle reportedly extends to his family life. It was reported in late August that he donated $2.2 million to Duke University at a time that his son was invited to be a walk-on member of the school’s highly ranked tennis team.
DeJoy’s fortune was accumulated through his logistics company, whose labor practices included union-busting, a bevy of labor violations, a major sexual harassment settlement, and working several pregnant employees to the point that they miscarried.
Indeed, one of the items that should only further disqualify DeJoy from his position is his continued $30 million financial stake in that company, which has contracted with USPS to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars since 2013, including at least $14 million in the first three months of DeJoy’s tenure, which is about $10 million more than the same period in 2019 and about $9 million more than the same period in 2018. As the Washington Post reported, DeJoy and his wife in total own upward of $75.3 million “in assets in Postal Service competitors or contractors,” coming in part from “millions in a private-equity fund invested in logistics companies that could benefit from privatizing or disassembling the Postal Service.”
Finally, over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that DeJoy, during his tenure running Breed Logistics, allegedly pressured employees to contribute to Republican campaigns and then reimbursed them through bonuses in violation of federal and North Carolina election laws. This straw-donor money laundering scheme was described by DeJoy’s former longtime director of human resources at Breed and another company employee. Further evidence and testimony documenting the alleged scheme was provided by other employees and through campaign finance records examined by the Post.
DeJoy is under investigation by the Postal Service inspector general for this myriad of conflicts of interest and is potentially now under state investigation for possible criminal conduct, though the federal laws he allegedly violated appear to be outside the five-year statute of limitations for prosecution.
What Would Normally Happen: It’s hard to conceive of this level of blatant public corruption—and with worse results for the country—outside of the spoils system of postbellum America. That was an era when tarring and feathering was not completely uncommon.
What Democrats Have Done: So far, Democrats have surprisingly somewhat mobilized to meet the occasion. Sen. Elizabeth Warren requested and set in motion that aforementioned inspector general investigation. When the scope of the crisis became clear late last month, the House Oversight Committee returned early from recess to hold an emergency hearing with DeJoy, who failed to answer very basic questions—such as the price of a postcard—and was otherwise evasive. In a pair of congressional hearings, DeJoy said he would not commit to sending Congress the analysis he used to make his changes, that he was not responsible for the memo mandating overtime cuts and that he didn’t want to find out who was, and that the Postal Service hadn’t actually cut overtime but also that the overtime cuts had been rescinded. At the same time, he adamantly refused to allow Postal Service employees to restart the idled sorting machines that needed merely to have outlet cords plugged back in.
After DeJoy refused to turn over documents related to his changes, the House Oversight Committee last week issued a subpoena for DeJoy to turn over by Sept. 16 documents related to the ongoing service disruptions and how the changes to service came about, along with DeJoy’s personal calendar.
Over the weekend, House and Senate Democrats blasted DeJoy for the alleged campaign finance money laundering scheme. North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, meanwhile, sent out a tweet saying that “any credible allegations” of such campaign finance felonies warranted state investigation, but added that it would be inappropriate for him to comment “on any specific matter at this time.” The Washington Post further reported that the State Board of Elections, the Guilford County district attorney, and the Wake County district attorney could play a key role in any criminal investigation.
When DeJoy was asked whether or not he had participated in any sort of straw-donor scheme on behalf of the Trump campaign during his August congressional testimony, he responded indignantly, saying “That’s an outrageous claim sir, and I resent it.” He then denied participating in such a scheme. Technically, he may be right: The conduct alleged in the Post report took place between 2000 and 2014, benefiting candidates other than Trump, which would mean that DeJoy’s resentment must have been about the supposed time frame, rather than the nature of the criminal conduct itself.
What Is Likely to Be Done: It is unclear whether DeJoy will be made to actually comply with the congressional subpoena, but recent history is not promising. The Postal Service put out a statement criticizing the subpoena, claiming it was cooperating with the committee—though it was not—and vaguely stating “we fully intend to comply with our obligations under the law.” Many, many, many other officials of this administration have ignored subpoenas and claimed to have been in compliance with their obligations under the law, with little consequence.
The Democratic response has generally been to sue in court, a process that has yet to yield results. Indeed, last week, a panel for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in one such lawsuit that Congress could not have the court enforce its subpoena of former White House counsel Donald McGahn, because Congress had never passed a law specifically requiring that its subpoenas be enforced.
While that case is sure to be appealed and seems to conflict with other appellate level rulings, the clock is running out for this Congress to enforce its subpoenas before they expire. Don’t be surprised if DeJoy tries to stall. If he does, the D.C. Circuit panel has ruled that Congress’ only option to enforce its subpoena power against him and other members of the administration is to use its long-dormant inherent contempt power to arrest, or possibly fine, witnesses who refuse to comply with subpoenas.
The House Oversight Committee could also investigate the straw donor scheme, even subpoenaing documents from DeJoy’s old logistics firm. Indeed, Rep. Jackie Speier, a member of the House Oversight Committee, told the Post that she asked colleagues to begin an investigation. On Monday, staff for Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney confirmed in a statement that the committee would investigate the allegations. “If these allegations are true, Mr. DeJoy could face criminal exposure—not only for his actions in North Carolina, but also for lying to our Committee under oath,” Maloney said. “We will be investigating this issue, but I believe the Board of Governors must take emergency action to immediately suspend Mr. DeJoy, who they never should have selected in the first place.”
Given the cautiousness with which the Democrats are approaching the looming election, it’s hard to imagine them putting DeJoy in handcuffs—or attempting to impeach him—for illegally failing to comply with the subpoena if that’s the route he goes, or for his apparent campaign finance felonies. The only mechanism for accountability left at that point will be for Joe Biden to win the election, but for Biden to win, DeJoy first will have to deliver the ballots.
How Impeachable This Stuff Is: If tarring and feathering weren’t so morally abhorrent, Louis DeJoy would be a prime deserving candidate. In simple functional terms, he has botched the basic operations of an essential national service, to a degree that would cost any normal administrator his job. And he has done it in a way that benefits the expressed corrupt interests of a president and political party with whom he is deeply—and possibly illegally—entangled, undermining the already undermined public trust in both our current government and in the election with which we would try to replace that government. And he may be making some money out of it all personally, on the side. He certainly should be removed from office before he can do any further damage, even if he won’t be because of how broken the U.S. political system is. 10 out of 10.