WASHINGTON (AP) — Postmaster General Louis DeJoy told lawmakers Monday that he has warned allies of President Donald Trump that the president’s repeated attacks on the legitimacy of mail-in ballots are “not helpful,” but denied that recent changes at the Postal Service are linked to the November elections.
DeJoy, who has come under intense scrutiny over sweeping policy changes at the U.S. Postal Service, faced new questions on mounting problems at the agency as it prepares to deliver record numbers of ballots this fall as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
During an exchange with Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., DeJoy first denied having contacted the president’s campaign team, but later backtracked, saying he has “spoken to people that are friends of mine that are associated with the campaign” over Trump’s baseless claims that mail voting will lead to fraud.
“I have put word around to different people that this is not helpful,” DeJoy said during a six-hour House Oversight Committee hearing.
DeJoy faced tense questions from lawmakers over mail delivery delays seen since he took the helm in mid-June. It was his second appearance before Congress in four days.
“I am not engaged in sabotaging the election,” DeJoy said, adding that, like Trump, he personally plans to vote by mail.
The hearing quickly became a debate over the delivery disruptions being reported nationwide. Democrats said the changes under DeJoy’s watch are causing widespread delays, but Republicans dismissed the worries as unfounded and part of a Democratic “conspiracy” against Trump.
The pandemic has pushed the Postal Service into a central role in the 2020 elections, with tens of millions of people expected to vote by mail rather than in-person. At the same time, Trump has acknowledged he is withholding emergency aid from the service to make it harder to process mail-in ballots, as his election campaign legally challenges mail voting procedures in key states.
Trump again raised the prospect of a "rigged election” Monday as he spoke about mail-in voting at the Republican National Convention. Experts say mail voting has proven remarkably secure.
DeJoy, a former supply-chain CEO and a major donor to Trump and the GOP, set in motion a series of operational changes this summer that delayed mail across the country. DeJoy told the House panel that election mail is his “No. 1 priority,” adding that he will authorize expanded use of overtime, extra truck trips and other measures in the weeks before the election to ensure on-time delivery of ballots.
He disputed reports that he has eliminated overtime for postal workers and said a Postal Service document outlining overtime restrictions was written by a mid-level manager. Last week, DeJoy said he was halting some of his operational changes “to avoid even the appearance of impact on election mail.”
Still, DeJoy vehemently refused to restore decommissioned mail-sorting machines and blue collection boxes, saying they are not needed. He also said he would continue policies limiting when mail can go out as well as a halting of late delivery trips, which postal workers have said contributes to delays.
“What the heck are you doing?” Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass. asked DeJoy.
“Either through gross incompetence, you have ended the 240-year history of delivering the mail reliably on time. Or ... you’re doing this on purpose and deliberately dismantling this once proud tradition," Lynch said.
DeJoy has downplayed delivery delays and said the agency is fully capable of processing this year’s mail-in ballots. He urged voters to request mail-in ballots at least 15 days before the Nov. 3 election and mail them back at least seven days prior to Election Day.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chair of the Oversight committee, accused DeJoy of withholding information from Congress and threatened to subpoena the postmaster general for additional records. On Saturday, Maloney’s committee released internal Postal Service documents detailing delays in a range of mail services, including first-class and Priority Mail.
The oversight hearing came two days after the House approved legislation to reverse changes at the Postal Service and send $25 billion to shore up the agency ahead of the November election. Twenty-six House Republicans broke with Trump to back the House bill, which passed 257-150, but there was little sign of bipartisanship at Monday’s hearing.
At one point, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., questioned DeJoy’s role as a fundraiser for Trump’s 2016 election, leading to a heated exchange. Cooper pointedly reminded DeJoy that it’s a felony to delay delivery of the mail.
DeJoy said he’s in “full compliance” with ethics rules and said he resented the line of questions.
Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., told DeJoy flatly that he does not trust him.
Republicans took the opposite approach, repeatedly apologizing to DeJoy for the harsh questions and dismissing the Democrats' inquiries about mail delivery delays as a conspiracy theory.
“You’re getting a berating up here,″ Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., told DeJoy.
At one point Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., fired off a round of quick, seemingly basic questions — How much to does it cost to mail a postcard? How many people voted by mail in the last election? -- only to find DeJoy did not know the answers.
“I’m concerned about your understanding of this agency,” she said.
DeJoy said many of the operational changes, such as removal of sorting machines, were underway before he arrived. When Porter and other Democrats pressed him on who ordered the changes, DeJoy did not provide an answer.
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., compared the hearing to “punching Jell-O" and said DeJoy's goal was to "avoid at all cost answering a question directly.”
It's unclear where lawmakers go from here. The House's postal bill is certain to stall in the GOP-held Senate and faces a veto threat from the White House. Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Trump would consider additional money only as part of a broader coronavirus relief package.
Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this story. Izaguirre reported from Charleston, W.Va.
The Associated Press produced this coverage with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.