White House

Transparency doesn’t seem to be among the Trump administration’s priorities

President Donald Trump’s aides won’t reveal which federal employees received waivers allowing them to bypass ethics rules and oversee the industries they recently worked in. They haven’t released full details about military operations around the globe.

In one of the most high-profile decisions on transparency this year, the Trump administration announced that it no longer will reveal who’s visiting the White House.

Nearly 100 days into his presidency, Trump hasn’t made keeping Americans informed about what his administration is doing a top priority – despite the many public signing ceremonies for executive orders and congressional resolutions.

“President Trump is not going to lead on any kind of transparency or accountability,” said John Wonderlich, executive editor of the Sunlight Foundation, which pushes for government openness. “Their default is whatever choice prevents discomfort and inconvenience.”

The administration has started to make some basic pieces of information more available now than it did immediately after Trump was sworn in to office in January, perhaps because the administration has hired more employees. Transcripts, executive orders and news releases – which were difficult to come by in the days just after Trump’s inauguration – are now posted online.

But administration officials continue to maintain other secrets. Trump’s tax returns remain unseen, despite the common practice of presidents for four decades of releasing them. Thousands of records about animal mistreatment from the Department of Agriculture’s website are still missing. The White House still sometimes fails to reveal whom the president is meeting with or what he’s doing for hours at a time.

Just recently, Trump encountered a pair of former Colombian presidents at his family-owned Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The White House disputes that the encounter was a meeting, but in any case the presence of the two former presidents was not noted on his schedule and not disclosed to reporters who had traveled with him to Palm Beach.

Federal agencies have eased orders early in the administration to stop issuing news releases, posting to social media and sending correspondence. But some Democratic lawmakers have accused the same agencies of suppressing information they need for their jobs, including preparing for committee hearings.

The problem goes beyond what information the administration is releasing, say government watchdog groups. The administration, the groups say, regularly provides conflicting information, making it virtually impossible at times to determine what is the truth of American policy.

Last week, Trump congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a successful referendum gave him sweeping new powers. But the president’s warm call to Erdogan seemed to contradict a State Department statement that noted election “irregularities” and called for Erdogan to “protect the fundamental rights and freedoms” of citizens.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly has touted the administration for its transparency efforts, particularly with reporters who work at the White House.

“I think that we’ve taken several steps to allow people access to this White House . . . in particular the press,” he said. “We hold regular pool sprays. We bring people in. We release participant lists. We give press the opportunity to come into the room, see everybody who’s there. You’re part of the discussion.”

Trump, who has called the media “the enemy of the American people” and frequently speaks of “fake news,” has said he prefers to tweet to reach Americans directly.

He campaigned on “draining the swamp,” which included ridding the government of Washington insiders, big money and lobbying.

But while he spoke of changes, he continued to advocate for secrecy and to feud with the media. He threatened to investigate how journalists had received classified information and kept the names of those who’d donated millions of dollars to his inauguration festivities a secret until after he was sworn in and was required by law to release them — a break from his Republican and Democratic predecessors in the White House.

“The president likes to tweet but doesn’t want to share much info beyond that,” said Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen. “They want to engage in the kind of inside dealing and cronyism that candidate Trump criticized, and they want to do it in secret.”

Alan Cobb, a Republican from Wichita, Kansas, who worked for Trump’s campaign, acknowledged that the president’s actions prompt reasonable questions about transparency but said he was not concerned. It’s just another case, he said, of the Washington news media being worried about issues that busy working Americans across the nation are not.

Trump is constantly comparing himself with his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, who offered a sweeping promise of transparency from his first day in office in 2009. But while Obama fell short of his goals in many ways, Trump doesn’t come close to releasing as much information.

He took down the Spanish-language White House website and is not using many of the mechanisms his predecessor left for him, including social media accounts such as Flickr, Pinterest and Tumblr.

He reversed course and decided not to release visitors logs for the White House until five years after he leaves office, claiming that doing so would present “grave national security risks and privacy concerns.” Obama posted the logs online.

When the administration made public the financial disclosure forms White House staffers are required to file, it declined to publish them online and did not provide a list of which staffers were required to file them. Instead, reporters had to request each employee’s financial statement separately by name. Then the document was emailed to the requester.

Trump also killed a requirement that the Office of Government Ethics publish an annual report detailing which employees had received ethics waivers that would allow them to work on issues related to previous employers. Under Obama, when such waivers were granted, the administration publicized them.

The Trump administration also has been more sparing than the Obama administration in releasing information about the deployment of members of the military to conflict zones such as Syria and Somalia, according to Ned Price, who worked at the CIA from 2006 until this year, most recently as the spokesman for the National Security Council.

Sean Moulton, the open-government program manager at the Project on Government Oversight, said Obama’s staff came into office pushing to share information and seek input from others, though some people thought it was not genuine because they already had an agenda. Now, he said, the atmosphere is completely different. “We’re not seeing the same involvement from the White House,” he said.

The Trump administration also has been slow to respond to other transparency issues. Trump has continued the Obama-initiated practice of allowing the electronic posting of petitions on the White House website, and there are 60 new ones, including those urging Trump to release his tax returns and put his businesses in a blind trust. But Trump has not said how the administration intends to respond to them.

The We the People page, which Obama launched in 2011 as a way to give the public a voice on what issues the White House should tackle, collected about 38.5 million signatures on more than 473,000 petitions during his tenure.

Under Obama, a petition that received 100,000 signatures would get an official response within 30 days. Trump, at nearly 100 days, has yet to respond to the nine that have met that threshold.

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