The Trump White House and GOP leaders have zeroed in on one main justification for releasing the controversial Devin Nunes memo: It's all about transparency. "I've always believed in the public's right to know," Vice President Pence said Thursday. “We have said all along, from day one, that we want full transparency in this process,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told CNN Wednesday.
White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly leaned into it even harder Wednesday on Fox News Radio: “Frankly, in every other case that I can remember in my lifetime where a president was in some kind of trouble, the president, the White House attempted to not release things. This president has said from the beginning . . . 'I want everything out. I want this thing, I want the American people to know the truth.'”
President Trump is just trying to be forthcoming, you see. He wants to get it all out there! Except he clearly doesn't.
There are two gaping holes in this argument: The first is that the White House has shunned transparency in plenty of ways previous administrations haven't, and the second is that its line for transparency in this case is completely arbitrary — and completely self-serving.
People can feel how they will about the memo, which was released by the House Intelligence Committee Friday afternoon. But the argument that the release was driven primarily by a desire for transparency is a pretty laughable one. The fact is that the White House and GOP leader approved the release of a memo based upon classified information that just so happens to serve their purposes — it reportedly calls into question the FBI's case for surveilling a former Trump adviser — and they have been conspicuously unwilling to release other documents that don't.
Perhaps the White House's biggest anti-transparency move has been withholding President Trump's tax returns, breaking with a practice followed by every president since Jimmy Carter. Trump initially said during the 2016 campaign that he would do so, only to reverse course and claim that his electoral victory was proof that people didn't actually care to see them. (Never mind that a Washington Post-ABC News poll last month showed that 74 percent of all Americans, and even 49 percent of Trump supporters, say they want to see the returns.)
Here are some other anti-transparency moves of varying degrees of importance:
- The chief outside group supporting Trump's agenda, America First Policies, doesn't disclose its donors. It isn't required to, but President Barack Obama's outside group did so voluntarily.
- The Trump White House doesn't share visitor logs as the Obama White House did.
- It has violated its own lobbying ban without disclosing waivers that were given to aides working on issues on which they had previously lobbied.
- During the 2016 campaign, Trump declined to substantiate his claims of “tens of millions” of dollars donated to charity.
- Democrats have accused the Trump administration of ignoring their requests for information from agencies related to their legislative duties.
- The White House tried to block former acting attorney general Sally Yates, whom Trump fired for refusing to defend his travel ban, from testifying before Congress.
- More recently, it has sought to withhold information in both Donald Trump Jr.'s and Stephen K. Bannon's testimonies, citing attorney-client privilege and executive privilege, respectively.
- It still refuses to disclose or confirm when the president goes golfing, leaving reporters to deduce that's what he's doing.
This is a necessarily incomplete list. But it shows that the White House has hardly gone above and beyond on transparency — even in cases where it would be easy to do so.
But perhaps the biggest strike against the White House's spin here is that fact that we're only going to see the memo crafted by House Intelligence Committee Republicans. The Democrats have crafted their own memo, but the GOP-controlled committee voted not to release it. The committee could also release the FISA warrant or other documentation if it wanted to. If transparency is truly the goal, why release more than just one party's argument about the underlying facts? And for that matter, why even classify information in the first place?
The second question is facetious, but it's a key point. It's important for the government to classify certain things, of course, and every decision to disclose classified information is a cost-benefit analysis — a decision that putting the information out there will serve more of a purpose than keeping it classified.
But the White House's argument here doesn't allow for that kind of nuance. It suggests that releasing basically any information is good because it's being “transparent.” And it suggests its own cost-benefit analysis includes a heaping mound of political gain on the benefit side.