The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sunshine Week brings Trump’s information darkness to light

President Trump speaks to members of the media on Tuesday. (Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg News)

If sunshine is the best disinfectant, President Trump must pray for rain.

He and his administration have a gloomy record when it comes to transparency, a particularly lamentable situation during Sunshine Week, which ends Saturday. Started by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE), the observance began in 2005 to celebrate openness and transparency in government.

But what’s to celebrate under Trump?

ASNE has “significant concerns with the level of transparency demonstrated by the Trump administration,” said Kevin M. Goldberg, the organization’s legal counsel. “Public data that was once available even without a Freedom of Information Act request has disappeared from public view, a trend of restricting access to government officials — especially those in agencies dealing with science and defense issues — has continued, and some forward-looking programs designed to improve the flow of information to the public that were created by prior administrations have been discontinued.”

“Transparency is in danger,” he added by email, “when it is needed most.”

Before he ran for president, Trump sounded like a champion of transparency, declaring in a 2012 tweet that Barack Obama was “the least transparent President — ever — and he ran on transparency.”

Setting aside the dubiousness of that declaration, the current president is beating Obama on the transparency-deficit front.

“It’s President Trump who, in the first 400 days of his Administration, has instituted a culture of secrecy in the Executive Branch and the White House,” said a report issued by Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), chairman of the Democracy Reform Task Force.

Trump’s approach to transparency was defined before he became president. Unlike Obama, Trump refused to release his tax returns. That violated decades of custom and tradition that his predecessors followed.

The refusal to release his tax returns remains Trump’s most notable example of opaqueness, but it certainly is not alone. The current restraining order preventing porn actress Stormy Daniels, who received $130,000 in hush money from a Trump attorney, from talking about her alleged decade-old affair with the president is another.

“While every administration has erred on the side of secrecy, under the current administration we have witnessed a rapid erosion of openness, the crumbling of norms, frequent and ongoing disparagement of the media, as well as efforts to stonewall information requests, manipulate data, and suppress facts,” said “Closing Democracy’s Window,” a report issued Friday by Open the Government, a coalition of groups favoring open government.

To mark Sunshine Week, examples of darkness have been catalogued by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, in “a broad review of the unprecedented secrecy of the Trump administration.”

“The Trump Administration is shrouded in secrecy — hiding foreign meetings, conflicts of interest, and self-dealing that benefit President Trump and his family,” Cummings said by email. “The American people deserve to know how the President and his businesses are profiting from the presidency.  Unfortunately, congressional Republicans continue to wall off the Administration from real oversight.”

Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) did not respond to a request for comment.

Cummings released his review on Monday, the same day he sent letters to the Treasury Department and the Trump Organization, the conglomerate owned by the president, seeking information about foreign payments to the business. The White House, the Office of Management and Budget and the Trump Organization also did not respond to requests for comment.

Other items on Cummings’s list of “secrecy in the Trump administration” include:

  • Trump’s decision to keep White House visitor logs secret, “reversing the Obama Administration’s policy of voluntarily disclosing logs of visitors to the White House. A lawsuit forced President Trump to release at least some of those records.”
  • A “dramatic increase in Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.” There were 671 lawsuits in 2017 after Trump was inaugurated that January, compared with 448 in 2016, Obama’s last full year in office, according to Justice Department data.
  • Secret regulatory task force members. “Many agencies have refused to disclose the identities of individuals serving on Regulatory Reform Task Forces that President Trump required each agency to create.”
  • Withholding documents about the October ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. service members. Cummings requested a briefing, “but the White House has refused to even talk about the incident.”
  • Withholding information about private jet travel by administration officials. Cummings and Gowdy requested documents, “but the White House has stonewalled the Committee.”

While all administrations have issues with transparency, Trump is vying to be the champion of opacity.

“The growing culture of unwarranted secrecy is increasingly the rule, rather than the exception,” said Lisa Rosenberg, executive director of Open the Government. “At the White House and in many agencies, transparency seems to be perceived as an enemy, rather than an indispensable ally in the service of safeguarding our democracy.”

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