It would be months before Louis DeJoy took the reins of the nation’s mail system, and the U.S. Postal Service already was mired in crisis.
Mail carriers were revolting, fearful they had few protections against the newly emerging coronavirus. The Trump administration was bearing down on its finances, sending USPS officials scrambling over what they saw as a potential illegal takeover of agency operations. And then there was a looming standoff with Amazon, which privately signaled it could take some of its lucrative delivery business elsewhere.
The tensions surfaced at an April 9 meeting, when Amazon executives “stated their concerns” about the Postal Service’s economic plight amid the pandemic and questioned its “viability to them as a continued shipping partner,” according to a once-secret memo circulated within the agency, which described the situation as an “inflection point.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The wide-ranging headaches that so troubled the USPS in April ultimately foreshadowed a summer of upheaval, thrusting the once-venerated mail service into a political maelstrom months before a presidential election. Newly disclosed details of these struggles are laid bare in nearly 10,000 pages of emails, legal memos, presentations and other documents obtained by The Washington Post from American Oversight, a watchdog group that requested them under the Freedom of Information Act.
The documents, which mostly span March and April, depict an agency in distress, as its deteriorating finances collided with a public-health emergency and a looming election that would be heavily reliant on absentee ballots. During that period, the USPS occasionally relied on the legal counsel of well-connected Republicans, including Stefan C. Passantino, who once served as a top White House lawyer under President Donald Trump. Passantino, whose role has not been previously reported, is also part of a new pro-Trump legal coalition preparing for the possibility of a contested election, a relationship that has raised new ethical flags among the administration’s critics.
The records also offer fresh detail about the Postal Service’s precarious position in the White House’s early pandemic response. At one point in April, USPS leaders drafted a news release announcing plans to distribute 650 million masks nationwide, enough to offer five face coverings to every American household. The document, which includes quotations from top USPS officials and other specifics, was never sent. But it suggests that the government’s initial interest in tapping the Postal Service as part of its campaign to combat the coronavirus may have been far more advanced than initially reported this spring.