Trump’s Year of Secrecy

In a representative democracy, the people are supposed to supervise the government’s activities and hold political leaders accountable for their decisions. That oversight power hinges on the availability of information: What is the government doing, who is involved, and why?

Unfortunately, answers to such questions haven’t come easily from the Trump presidency. From obscuring major policy decisions involving war and peace to pointlessly stonewalling on simple observable facts, President Donald Trump and his appointees have thwarted efforts by the public, the press, and the legislative branch to seek information on a vast range of issues. Based on the mounting evidence over the past year, the overall emerging impression is that the Trump administration has been unusually secretive and closed off.

That’s a problem because when government secrecy flourishes, so does the possibility of mistakes, misuse of power, and arbitrary personal rule rather than the rule of law. Extraordinary power comes with extraordinary potential for abuse – and we cannot fix or hold anyone responsible for the injustices and failures resulting from that abuse if they stay unknown. Our constitutional system of government also faces a real risk of democratic backsliding when the basic mechanisms of governance and accountability crumble under consolidated, unchecked executive power.

Moreover, not only is Trump creating a void of good information, he’s filling it with an astonishing amount of falsehoods and propaganda. His use of social media as his diary and a favorite venue to feud with others, as well as his undisciplined impulses in blurting out his biases (e.g., on his Muslim ban) and motivations (e.g., his reason for firing FBI Director James Comey), shouldn’t be lauded as transparency either. They are his means for cultivating a false persona of unvarnished stream-of-consciousness candor, not illuminating the workings of the executive branch. In the end, the result destabilizes the existence of an objective reality where the truth matters – and that’s the point.

Going forward, what to monitor on this front includes the upcoming publication of the federal agencies’ first annual Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reports covering the Trump administration, his administration’s compliance with further congressional oversight requests and statutory reporting requirements, the Information Security Oversight Office’s next classification statistics report, additional unpublished national security directives, and more references to mysterious legal opinions or memoranda. The kinds of information that continue to surface due to leaks – despite this administration’s antipathy towards them – will also be telling as they hint at insiders determined to drag Trump’s malice and incompetence into public view.

In the meantime, examples observed during the first year of his presidency (listed below) tell a troubling story on their own.

Executive Overreach

  • In the spring, the White House directed the executive branch to disregard oversight requests for information from Democratic members of Congress. By June, the lawmakers’ list of ignored written requests to the White House or the Trump administration numbered more than 400.
  • In May, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel advised federal agencies that individual lawmakers’ requests for information do not “trigger any obligation to accommodate congressional needs,” unless those members of Congress have the majority party’s blessing. The White House later softened its defense of the legal opinion.
  • The Trump administration has been suppressing basic information about its deregulation teams, with some agencies refusing to release even the names of appointees. Investigative reporters, however, have identified numerous corporate lobbyists involved in what experts warn is an effort to weaken or overturn government rules disliked by industry.
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency known for human rights abuses, is planning to routinely destroy records of detention operations, including documentation of sexual assault, solitary confinement, and deaths of immigrants in government custody.
  • The Department of Homeland Security is opposing the public release of its own Inspector General’s findings that federal immigration agents violated federal court orders during the first days of Trump’s Muslim ban.
  • The Trump administration recently announced new restrictions on refugee admissions from 11 countries, but won’t publicly name those 11 countries – despite an unofficially confirmed list.
  • Trump’s so-called Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity has been criticized and sued by multiple parties over its excessive secrecy in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act and other federal transparency statutes. In November, the Commission was sued by one of its own members charging that its “operations have not been open and transparent, not even to the commissioners themselves.”
  • The new Environment Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, Scott Pruitt, is going to unusual lengths to shroud the agency’s activities in secrecy, possibly in violation of federal record-keeping laws. These steps include dodging oversight questions from Congress, ending a long-standing practice of EPA leaders posting their calendars, directing career employees not to create a paper trail on proposed regulatory changes, and keeping private meetings with industry insiders under wraps until after they take place.
  • In a reversal of President Barack Obama’s policy, Trump eliminated public access to the White House visitor logs. One “unauthorized” version by POLITICO has tallied more than 3,400 individual interactions with the president by more than 2,000 people. Only after a successful FOIA lawsuit did the White House disclose the visitor logs of five White House offices – uncovering “Wall Street billionaires, corporate lobbyists and far right conservatives” swamping the White House.
  • As for visitors to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s luxury Floridian property where he frequently vacations, the Trump White House insists the records simply don’t exist despite eyewitness reports of approved entry lists suggesting otherwise.
  • Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price initially withheld his schedule of future travel and appointments, prompting journalists to painstakingly reconstruct his private jet travel on their own. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s deficient documentation of his private plane trips also led to an investigation by the agency’s Inspector General.
  • Shortly after Inauguration Day, the Trump administration ordered a media blackout at various federal agencies and barred their external communications, such as press releases and social media updates.
  • In February, the White House Press Office began labeling many of its announcements and messages to reporters, such as emails containing the president’s daily schedule, as “Not Reportable.”
  • During the summer, the White House Press Office restricted reporters from broadcasting its press briefings, though it later allowed TV cameras to return. On-camera press briefings are also increasingly rare at the State Department and the Pentagon.
  • Trump aides refuse to answer basic questions about how often he goes golfing and with whom, even though his frequent vacations are announced and documented by the press.
  • When a journalist asked if the president would involve himself in a congressional race, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders cited the Hatch Act to evade the question, even though the president is not covered by that law’s restrictions on partisan political activity by executive branch employees.
  • Initially, the White House was slow in notifying the press and the public about Trump’s executive actions. It also recently stopped posting bills signed by the president to its website, which was standard practice during the Obama Administration. (The Library of Congress maintains a list of all federal legislation signed into law.)

National Security and Foreign Policy

  • The Trump administration never published National Security Presidential Memorandum (NSPM) #6 and refuses to comment on its contents. (The Obama administration also withheld a number of national security directives from the public domain.) As the Federation of American Scientists noted, NSPM-6 does not appear to be the North Korea directive that Trump reportedly signed earlier this year.
  • The Justice Department is stonewalling disclosure of the government’s official policy on its duty to notify people it has surveilled under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Wiretap Act, now invoking dubious justifications to keep it secret.
  • The Pentagon’s reporting of civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria due to American-led coalition airstrikes against Islamic State targets has long been criticized for under-counting and obfuscation. After an extensive investigation, The New York Times even warned the conflict “may be the least transparent war in recent American history.” The Trump administration worsened the secrecy by starting to report civilian casualties on an aggregate basis to obscure the role of individual nations – including America’s.
  • Even as the U.S. substantially expands its military presence in the Middle East, Trump insists that it’s “counterproductive” to inform the public about the numbers of American troops involved or his administration’s plans for further military activities.
  • When the Trump administration announced it had a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, officials didn’t fully explain it even to Congress. Six weeks after the announcement, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) denounced it “totally unacceptable” that “this committee and the Congress, more broadly, still does not know many of the crucial details of this strategy.”
  • The U.S. military command in Afghanistan classified and redacted previously public data on Afghan security forces from the latest report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, despite the watchdog’s criticism that as a result the “only people who don’t know what’s going on are the people paying for it.”
  • After a military raid in Yemen went awry and resulted in the deaths of a Navy SEAL as well as numerous civilians, the Trump administration still declared it “very successful” while providing little substantive information about what happened and why – prompting a FOIA request and later a lawsuit by the ACLU.
  • In April, Trump ordered airstrikes against the Syrian regime without having obtained approval from Congress or the United Nations Security Council. A FOIA lawsuit exposed the existence of a legal memorandum detailing the administration’s views on its legal authority for the bombings, but Trump refuses to disclose it.
  • Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been imposing deep staff cuts at the State Department behind the scenes, with little transparency about the details to Congress. Ironically, putting high-level officials on clerical duty to clear a FOIA backlog could be part of related efforts to push them to quit out of frustration.
  • In April, Trump released a readout of his phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping consisting of 28 words, only two of which described the call (“very productive”). In contrast, China released a lengthy and detailed recap.
  • In May, the White House banned American press, but not Russian press, from covering Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. During this meeting, Trump reportedly spilled the details of an Israeli special forces mission in Syria to his Russian guests.
  • In July, Trump held an hour-long second meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during which only Putin’s translator was present. The conversation came to light only after the head of a consulting firm revealed it in a note to his clients.
  • In November, American press first learned about President Trump’s decision to stop arming Kurdish fighters in Syria from another country: the Turkish Foreign Minister’s press conference in Ankara. Earlier that month, the White House had also banned American photographers from an entire day of a presidential trip overseas.

Russia Investigations

Ethical and Financial Conflicts of Interest

  • Trump still hasn’t released his tax returns, which reveal more and different information than the federal financial disclosure forms he has filed. (His lawyer also sought to withhold Trump’s signature certifying his filing as “true, complete and correct to the best of my knowledge.”) As a result, the public remains in the dark as to how exactly Trump and his family would personally profit from his exercise of power as president.
  • Trump properties are increasingly sold to shell companies, or secretive legal entities that allow anonymous buyers to conceal their identity. As USA Today reported: “Profits from sales of those properties flow through a trust run by Trump’s sons. The president is the sole beneficiary of the trust and can withdraw cash any time.”
  • Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump, failed to disclose more than $1 billion in debt and at least $10.6 million in 70 personal assets. In fact, Kushner has repeatedly revised his security clearance application and financial disclosure forms, which flag potential conflicts-of-interests such as the impact of his past role in a foundation that funded an Israeli settlement on his current role as Trump’s Middle East peace envoy.
  • Information about Ivanka Trump’s business ties with China, where much of her merchandise is made, is increasingly harder to find. Her company refuses to disclose it, despite questions whether she’s being improperly influenced by foreign governments or whether her corporate brand makes money off undermining American workers.
  • Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin failed to disclose $100 million in personal assets and interests in a Cayman Islands corporation.
  • Trump’s former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price failed to disclose that he bought discounted stock in a company he held power over as a lawmaker.
  • Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross failed to disclose the full details of his financial holdings and interests in a shipping company that link him to Putin associates.
  • Trump issued new ethics rules for executive branch appointees that are substantially weaker than his predecessor’s, making the approval of waivers an entirely discretionary decision and eliminating a mechanism for compelling their public disclosure. He then quietly gave special exemptions to his top White House aides, which were revealed only after a clash between the White House and the Office of Government Ethics.
  • Top Trump aides who recently left their White House positions failed to file termination financial disclosure reports as required, which show their potential conflicts of interest during employment and any advance negotiations for future jobs.
  • Trump’s Presidential Inaugural Committee raised a record $107 million for inaugural activities. Trump’s team has not disclosed what happened to the remaining funds.

Information on the State of America

  • As documented by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, the Trump administration has been censoring official information on climate change and curtailing online public access to climate change data and resources across the federal government. Affected agencies include the EPA, as well as the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Energy, State, and Interior. The EPA, for instance, ended public access to numerous resources on its website that prepare state and local governments for climate change. Also gone are ecological assessment data published by the Bureau of Land Management.
  • The Trump administration published the first of its annual FBI crime statistics reports with nearly 70 percent fewer data tables than the previous report, after bypassing the standard review process for such changes.
  • During Puerto Rico’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Maria, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) erased statistics off its website that revealed the dire status of drinking water and electricity access on the island. FEMA restored the data after media inquiries and public backlash.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) altered its workplace fatalities listings to cover fewer types of incidents and buried remaining data on its website. According to a former OSHA official, about a fifth of worker deaths could be kept off the logs as a result.
  • The Trump White House blocked a new rule that would require employers to report more employee and pay data to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The paycheck transparency proposal was designed to combat workplace discrimination against women and minority groups. Trump also rescinded an Obama era policy that banned federal contractor companies from requiring arbitration – which keeps worker claims out of the public eye – for resolving sexual harassment, sexual assault, or discrimination complaints.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services removed basic information about the Affordable Care Act, such as descriptions of the law’s consumer protections, from its own website and the healthcare.gov portal.
  • The Department of Agriculture (USDA) shut down its public database of animal abuse records and inspection reports from its website, then responded to a FOIA request about the decision with 1,771 pages that were entirely redacted. After a public outcry, the USDA partially restored public access to the data.
  • The Trump administration erased open datasets created under the Obama administration from the White House website, although the National Archives and Records Administration has created a less-accessible archival copy.

 

Views expressed here are entirely the author’s own.

Image: Drew Angerer/Getty

 

About the Author(s)

Kate Oh

is a political researcher and strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union. Follow her on Twitter (@kathoh).