GOP senator held up Trump nominee over demand to see border wall contracts
By NICK MIROFF AND DAMIAN PALETTA | The Washington Post | Published: August 3, 2019
A Republican senator held up the confirmation of a White House budget official this week in an attempt to obtain sensitive information about border wall contracts he’s been trying to steer to a major donor, according to emails obtained by The Washington Post.
The emails show Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., blasting the “arrogance” of the Army Corps of Engineers after senior military officials told him the contracts contained sensitive, proprietary information provided by the companies that could not be shared.
In recent months, Cramer aggressively has touted his preferred construction firm, North Dakota-based Fisher Industries, and campaign finance records show the senator has received thousands of dollars in contributions from company CEO Tommy Fisher and his family members.
Cramer put a temporary hold this week on the confirmation of Michael Wooten, a nominee for a senior post at the White House Office of Management and Budget. After Wooten was confirmed Thursday, Cramer lashed out at the Army Corps in private emails when he was told the contracting bids contain sensitive information.
“This is a woefully inadequate response and not what I was promised by the White House as a condition for releasing my hold on the confirmation of the nominee for the Federal Procurement Officer,” Cramer wrote, copying others at OMB, the White House and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“The fact that you all claim secrecy without [citing] statute makes me very suspicious,” he said. “I have decided to stay in DC another day and would like to see General Semonite in my office tomorrow.”
Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, the top official at the Corps, went to Cramer’s office Friday to provide the senator with a private briefing. Cramer’s office released a statement afterward, vowing to hold the military engineers “accountable.”
“We received an update on wall construction and the bidding process, as well as a number of documents and the answers to questions we requested from the Army Corps,” the statement said. “I believe we have their attention and are in a position to succeed.”
President Donald Trump has redirected $3.5 billion in Defense Department funds to the border project, promising to build 500 miles of barrier before the 2020 election. Cramer said the president has bestowed him with special responsibilities to oversee progress.
“President Trump deputized Senator Cramer to work with the Army Corps to ensure their process is fair, transparent, and delivers the best possible deal for the American people,” Cramer’s statement read.
In an interview Friday with The Washington Post conducted via email, Cramer said he’d placed the hold on Wooten “to get the nominee to agree to reforming [Army Corps] procurement process,” which the senator criticized for prioritizing technical specifications over cost. “If that doesn’t concern watchdogs nothing should,” Cramer wrote.
He dismissed claims the contracts contained private information unavailable to someone with the stature of a U.S. senator.
“I can know where every submarine in the oceans are,” Cramer said in a separate email. “A simple non disclosure is sufficient for a member of Congress. The fact they won’t share it is concerning.”
“I don’t know what they are hiding,” he wrote.
An Army Corps spokesperson confirmed that Semonite met with Cramer on Friday, but referred questions about the meeting to the senator’s office.
Officials at the White House said were aware Cramer had intervened to hold up Wooten’s nomination, but they said they weren’t told about his connections to a specific company that has bid on border wall contracts.
Tommy Fisher and his wife gave at least $10,000 — the maximum allowable contribution — to Cramer in 2018 when he ran for Senate, records show. Fisher was Cramer’s guest at Trump’s State of the Union speech in February last year. The company CEO said he shook Trump’s hand afterward. Fisher also has been a repeat guest on Fox News in recent months, where he has praised the border wall effort and has promoted his firm.
Senior White House officials said they have been aware for several months that Cramer had expressed a personal interest in how these bids were being awarded. Cramer told a North Dakota radio station in May that he personally had raised concerns about the bidding process with Trump and that Trump had said, perhaps jokingly, “I deputize you” to deal with it.
The North Dakota senator repeatedly has promoted Fisher, and Trump, too, has joined the effort, pitching the company in meetings at the White House and aboard Air Force One that have troubled miliary commanders and Homeland Security officials.
They say it is highly unusual for a president to intervene on behalf of a private company seeking billions of dollars in federal contracts, and one of the reasons the Corps has long managed the procurement process is the agency’s reputation for technical expertise and military rectitude.
Fisher Industries was hired by the activist group “We Build the Wall” to install a span of steel bollard fencing last spring on private land west of El Paso, Texas. Former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince and immigration activist Kris Kobach are among the board members of the group, which says it has raised $25 million through private donations.
For Fisher, the project has been a showcase for what it says are innovative techniques that install the steel fencing more quickly and more cheaply than its competitors. But despite Cramer’s influence efforts and the president’s endorsement, Fisher was not picked by the Corps in recent rounds of bidding.
Fisher sued the government in April, alleging improprieties with the Corps’ procurement process.
During previous bids, the Corps said the company’s design did not meet its requirements and lacked regulatory approvals. DHS officials also told the Corps in March that Fisher’s work on a barrier project in San Diego came in late and over budget.
The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.