When they run for president, many candidates pledge to have “the most transparent administration in history.” Sometimes they mean it and sometimes they don’t, but you can at least give Donald Trump credit for not making that promise in 2016. He couldn’t be bothered to pretend to value transparency and had every intention of keeping his doings as secret as possible.
Now, Democrats are in a position to demand answers and documents from the administration. And that has left the entire Republican Party working to clamp down on information in as many ways as possible, lest the public get too close a look at what the administration is really up to.
Acting Attorney General Matthew G. Whitaker said he will not appear before Congress on Friday without assurances that he won’t be subpoenaed — giving Democrats a deadline of 6 p.m. Thursday to respond.
Whitaker’s move came shortly after the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to give its chairman the authority to subpoena Whitaker’s testimony, should he not appear or answer lawmakers’ questions.
“I’ll come, but only if you promise not to demand that I come” is certainly a novel offer. Of course, if Whitaker is going to voluntarily testify, the possibility of subpoenaing him is moot. It’s almost as though he’s laying the groundwork to charge the committee with being mean to him, then refuse to come after all. And Justice Department representatives say that even if he does testify, he’ll refuse to answer questions about his conversations with the president.
Which in ordinary circumstances might be justifiable, but, in this case, those communications are at the heart of the matter of whether he should have recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation. We certainly have a right to know whether Whitaker gave President Trump any assurances that he would use his position to tamp down the investigation or suppress its final report, which the president would prefer. But Whitaker won’t say — if he deigns to answer questions at all.
Speaking of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, it does appear that he’s at least approaching the end of his investigation, which raises the question of whether the public will get to see whatever he produces at its end. Trump’s nominee to be the new attorney general, William P. Barr, hedged on the question in his confirmation hearing, saying, “I don’t know what, at the end of the day, what will be release-able.” And the White House is preparing to assert executive privilege in an attempt to keep as much as possible of Mueller’s report hidden from the public.
That’s despite the fact that in a new CNN poll, 87 percent of those surveyed — including 80 percent of Republicans — say the Mueller report should be made public.
Let’s be honest here: The administration would like to keep the Mueller report hidden because they’re afraid of what will happen if the public sees it. Fighting for secrecy might itself be politically damaging, but they no doubt calculate that the damage from the report itself will be much worse, so if they can keep it secret, they’ll come out ahead.
Which is not coincidentally the same calculation Trump made when he decided to go against decades of tradition and refuse to release his tax returns. Yes, he would take a political hit for it, but it would be far worse if the public actually saw them.
The problem is now that Democrats have control of the House, they can demand the returns from the IRS as long as they have a legitimate purpose for doing so, and they have dozens of legitimate purposes. So Trump’s allies in Congress have come to the conclusion that a president being forced to show us his returns is an unconscionable threat to the privacy of every American.
Those Trump allies have now made this case in a comical letter urging the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee to back off:
Although some Members of Congress appear willing to sacrifice this critical privacy protection for political gain, any restriction or elimination of privacy protections afforded to Americans’ tax information sets a dangerous precedent. When we start making exceptions for one taxpayer, it begins the process of eroding and threatening the privacy rights of all taxpayers. This is risk that we cannot and should not take.
Indeed! After Democrats obtain the returns of Donald J. Trump, taxpayer, what’s to stop them from obtaining the returns of Herbert J. Nerflerp of Edina, Minn.? Or Gladys Snodgrass of Tucson? Or you or me?
The truth is that Congress has had the power to obtain the president’s tax returns for decades, and do you know why it didn’t exercise that power up until now? Because it never had to. Every president since Jimmy Carter has released his returns, and the public never found much problematic in them because prior presidents divested themselves of any entanglements that could create a conflict of interest.
Trump is not only the first president since Gerald Ford to refuse to release his returns; he’s also the president for whom it’s most urgent that we get them, because unlike all the others, he held on to his businesses, created avenues for people and governments to put money in his pocket, and has a history of unethical and even possibly illegal behavior when it comes to taxes. Which is why it’s so vital that the public see his returns and why he and his party are so terrified that they might.
There’s a degree to which every administration finds transparency annoying, whatever the president might have promised during the campaign. But the Trump administration and Trump’s allies in Congress believe transparency is something more: an existential threat. They’re probably right.