WASHINGTON (AP) — Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said Friday he had "no idea" blue mailboxes and sorting machines were being removed until a public uproar nationwide, as he testifies before a Senate committee digging into disruptions and changes in postal operations being made just as millions of Americans will be relying on mail-in ballots for the November election.
"I was made aware when everyone else was made aware," DeJoy testified.
The new postmaster general has faced public backlash over changes and delivery delays since he took the helm of the Postal Service in June. President Donald Trump praises DeJoy, a Republican donor and ally. But Democrats warn his cost-cutting initiatives are causing an upheaval that threatens the election.
Trump raised the stakes by saying he wants to block agency funds to make it harder for the Postal Service to handle the expected surge of mail-in ballots during the COVID-19 crisis.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, defended the postmaster.
"So this isn't some devious plot on your part," Johnson said.
DeJoy promised the Postal Service "is fully capable and committed to delivering the nation's election mail securely and on-time."
He said, "This sacred duty is my No. 1 priority between now and Election Day."
The morning hearing was being held remotely as Congress is on recess and lawmakers have been conducting much of their business during the coronavirus outbreak in virtual settings.
It's unclear if Sen. Kamala Harris of California, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, will be among those beaming into the session.
The outcry over mail delays and warnings of political interference have put the Postal Service at the center of the nation's tumultuous election year, with Americans rallying around one of the nation's oldest and more popular institutions.
With mounting pressure, DeJoy abruptly reversed course this week, vowing to postpone any further changes until after the election, saying he wanted to avoid even the "perception" of any interference. Blue mailboxes were being removed, back-of-shop sorting equipment shutdown and overtime hours kept in check.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whose role in postal operations is being questioned by Senate Democrats, said in a letter to Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer that he had no hand in "recruiting or suggesting" DeJoy for the job.
"In fact, I was surprised to learn that Mr. DeJoy was a candidate for the position," Mnuchin wrote in a letter late Thursday to Schumer.
As he gaveled open the session, Johnson dismissed the "false political narrative" that DeJoy is trying to "sabotage" the election.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said DeJoy told her in a subsequent phone call he had no intention of restoring the equipment.
An internal directive to postal staff said, "They are not to reconnect/reinstall machines," according to an email obtained by The Associated Press.
House Democrats are pushing ahead with a rare Saturday session to pass legislation that would prohibit the actions and send $25 billion to shore up postal operations. Some 20 states, along with voting rights advocates, have sued to reverse the changes.
During an interview Thursday on Washington Post Live, Pelosi said Republicans "have been after the post office for a while" as they try to run it more like a profitable business.
"A business? No it's a service," Pelosi said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is eyeing a $10 billion postal rescue as part of the next COVID-19 relief package.
"The Post Office is not in trouble," the GOP leader said Thursday during a home-state stop in Paducah, Ky. "We're going to make sure that they are able to deliver our ballots on time."
The White House has said it would be open to more postal funding as part of a broader virus aid package.
The Postal Service is struggling financially under a decline in mail volume, rising costs from the coronavirus pandemic and a rare and some say cumbersome congressional requirement to fund in advance its retiree health care benefits.
For many, the Postal Service provides a lifeline, sending not just cards and letters, but delivering prescription drugs, financial statements and other items that are especially needed by mail during the pandemic.
The choice of DeJoy to lead the service, the first postmaster general in nearly two decades who is not a career postal employee, is coming under increased scrutiny.
The postal service board of governors, appointed by Trump, selected DeJoy in May to take the job. A GOP donor, he previously owned a logistics business that was a longtime Postal Service contractor. He maintains significant financial stakes in companies that do business or compete with the agency, raising conflict of interest questions.
In a statement, the Postal Service said DeJoy has made all required financial disclosures but that he might have to divest some holdings if conflicts arise.
Schumer said this week he has asked for an accounting of how DeJoy was selected, but was previously told by the board of governors some information remains confidential. Schumer had said Mnuchin played a role in the process.
David C. Williams, the former vice chairman of the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors, on Thursday told lawmakers that he resigned from the board, in part, over DeJoy's selection, and because he believed the White House was taking extraordinary steps to turn the independent agency into a "political tool."
He said, "I was convinced that its independent role had been marginalized."
Williams, who resigned in April, told members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus at an online forum that DeJoy "didn't strike me as a serious candidate."
Associated Press writers Christina Cassidy in Atlanta and Bruce Schreiner in Frankfort, Ky., contributed to this report.