Is Donald Trump shutting Americans out of his presidency?
The White House comment line is shut down. New signatures aren’t being counted on petitions posted on the White House’s website. Federal agencies are not allowed to respond to requests.
Americans aren’t just failing to get their voices heard. The administration, too, is failing to provide information to them.
Transcripts, executive orders and news releases aren’t being posted online. Social media accounts, including Flickr, Pinterest and Tumblr, are no longer in use. Sending information to the Federal Register, the daily journal of the U.S. government, is delayed.
On Friday, a national research watchdog group condemned the administration for removing thousands of documents relevant to enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and the Horse Protection Act from the Department of Agriculture’s website. The removed documents included reports on fines, official warnings, inspection reports and annual reports.
“This is clearly a calculated move to protect from public scrutiny criminal entities who regularly break federal laws, endangering human health,” said Michael A. Budkie, the executive director of Stop Animal Exploitation Now, an Ohio-based nonprofit that monitors U.S. research facilities for animal cruelty.
“Even at the height of disagreement this has never happened,” said Maryanne Cottmeyer, 72, a retired federal worker from outside Olympia, Washington, who has called the White House comment line daily since Trump was sworn in, with no success. “They don’t want to hear.”
Cottmeyer, a self-described moderate Republican who has called the comment line for more than a decade, wants to speak to someone at the White House about Trump’s decision to pull out of the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which she thinks will hurt her state’s economy.
But when she calls 202-456-1111 she gets a recording: “Thank you for calling the White House comments line. The comment line is currently closed. But your comment is important to the president.” It then refers her to www.whitehouse.gov/contact – or Facebook, where the White House is accepting comments on its posts, but not messages.
“The more you know the worse it looks,” said Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen. “We have a president contemptuous of democracy. . . . I think the totality of measures you are describing are reflective of a president and administration who are uninterested in public input.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. But White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has praised the administration on several occasions for its transparency efforts.
“It’s far too early to sound the alarm bells,” said Ben Marchi, a Trump supporter and longtime Republican operative. “If they are slower to ramp up constituent services in deference to getting straight to work I think the American people will understand that.”
Marchi cites Trump’s handling of his Supreme Court selection – releasing a list of 21 candidates – as proof that Trump is already more transparent than former President Barack Obama was.
He kept the names of those who’d donated millions of dollars to his inauguration festivities a secret. He failed to release his tax returns, a common practice for presidential nominees for four decades. He even threatened to investigate how journalists have received classified information.
The White House hasn’t explained why the interaction between the federal government and the public has dwindled.
Is it intentional? Is is because staffers are overwhelmed? Is it incompetence?
“I don’t know because no one is telling us,” said Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, which pushes for transparency in government. “I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt but the problem is they had two months to get ready,” he said, referring to the time between the election and Trump’s inauguration.
In many cases, Obama’s administration left behind the mechanisms for Trump’s staff to use, including many social media accounts beyond Trump’s favorite, Twitter, and places to post items online. But the Trump administration isn’t using them.
The White House YouTube account, for example, is sometimes used to show Trump at events, but sometimes it isn’t. White House staff still transcribes the president’s remarks and the press secretary’s briefings but the transcriptions are not always posted online or sent to the media.
Michael Carome, director of Public Citizen’s health research group, said the Food and Drug Administration had not issued any Federal Register notices for nearly two weeks. “This is unprecedented, in my experience,” he said.
The Trump administration immediately revamped the White House website to include bios of the new president and vice president and their wives. It also eliminated references to gay and lesbian issues and global warming, and took down the Spanish-language website. After some criticism, Spicer told reporters in one of his first briefings that “We’ve got the IT folks working overtime” to rebuild the website for the new administration.
It had surprised some by keeping the We the People page, launched by the Obama administration in 2011 as a way to give the public a voice on what issues the White House should tackle. About 38.5 million signatures appeared on more than 473,000 petitions during Obama’s tenure.
Since Trump took office, more than two dozen petitions have been created, including those urging him to release his tax returns and put his businesses in a blind trust, but many people have complained on Facebook that their signatures are not being counted. An administration official with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to speak publicly said while signatures on petitions are being recorded, the volume of participants may be overtaxing the system.
The White House has not said how it intends to respond to what’s posted there; under Obama, a petition that received 100,000 signatures would get an official response within 30 days.
Since Trump became president, some agencies have been ordered to halt external communications altogether, according to organizations that monitor these efforts. They include: the Environmental Protection Agency, ordered to halt news releases and social media posts; the Department of Agriculture, told to send send reporters’ questions to the secretary’s office; and the Department of Health and Human Services, barred from sending some correspondence.
Sean Moulton, open government project manager at the Project on Government Oversight, said bans on communication might violate the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012, which bars agencies from creating policies that restrict employees from reporting waste, fraud and abuse, especially to Congress or inspectors general.
“I’m hoping they can get a better handle on it,” he said. “I remain hopeful that the administration will see the importance of keeping the public and Congress informed, but it remains to be seen. It’s still a question mark.”
Patrice Tomcik, 46, an activist from Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, who worries about the release of methane that comes from fracking and is a member of the group Moms Clean Air Force, which is monitoring the government’s development of methane rules, said she was in regular contact with the EPA during the Obama administration, even meeting with Administrator Gina McCarthy. She said her group would continue to push to get its voice heard at the EPA.
“I am extremely sick to my stomach about what’s going on, extremely fearful,” Tomcik said. “This is not the America I know.”