The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The first job of a Biden administration: Getting to, and telling, the truth

Eva Morales watches former vice president Joe Biden speak on the screen of a drive-in movie theater in Washington on Thursday. (Luis M. Alvarez/AP)

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has plans for the economy, green energy, fighting the coronavirus pandemic and much more if he wins in November. But while pursuing all that once in office, he would also need to clear the decks from the Trump administration. We have discussed the issue of prosecuting President Trump — let the New York district attorney work his will and set up a truth commission to explore wrongdoing among Trump administration officials — but the issue goes beyond the president’s personal misdeeds.

First, every agency and department should release all documents the Trump administration previously withheld from congressional subpoenas. Find them and post them online. Every page. That should set the scene for a transparency initiative from the new administration. Freedom of Information Act requests should be answered promptly. Claims of executive privilege should be asserted only in the most limited circumstances, such as national security. White House logs of who comes and goes should be posted online, as well.

Second, the new administration should vigorously pursue each and every credible charge of perjury committed by administration witnesses over the past four years. Perjury is difficult to prove, but incomplete or misleading testimony to Congress can also be actionable. This should set an example of zero tolerance for lying to Congress.

Third, the Justice Department needs a thorough review of its filings under the Trump administration. Did the department lie to any court? Did it improperly withhold documents from any court? There is an ethical obligation to inform courts of any such conduct. The perpetrators, if still at the Justice Department, should be fired and their alleged wrongdoing referred to state bar authorities for professional sanction. (Beyond examining evidence of falsehoods, the department will need an inspector general to review any other cases of professional misconduct, whether in facilitating or ignoring illegal conduct or in allowing political motives to taint investigations or cases.)

Fourth, scientific and other outside boards disbanded by the Trump administration and information scrubbed from websites should be restored. Each agency or department should withdraw and/or correct previous publications, studies and reports that did not adhere to the highest standards of scholarship.

These are concrete items a new administration can initiate — and what better time than when one party controls the House, the White House and possibly the Senate? But there is also the power of example. The White House and the president personally set the tone. If the White House press secretary misstates something, he or she should correct the record promptly. All press secretaries are there to emphasize the positive and downplay the negative, but whoever holds that job has a solemn obligation not to intentionally misstate facts. When the press secretary does not know something, say so.

And the president himself should take fact-checking seriously. If he got something wrong, do not repeat the assertion — or at least modify it. When the president gets something wrong, he, too, should correct the record, thereby setting a standard for the entire administration.

No administration is 100 percent candid or factual, but the acceptance of lying as a matter of course, the encouragement to say easily disprovable things, must end. We deserve a president and administration that at least tries to stick to the truth.

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