THE WHITE HOUSE on Wednesday disclosed information on 14 waivers it has granted to exempt 17 appointees from government ethics standards. The release itself qualifies as good news. That it took so long is less good news: more evidence that this White House too often sees transparency as a nuisance to be resisted. Persistent pressure from the Office of Government Ethics, led by Walter M. Shaub Jr., resulted in the waivers’ disclosure. Good for Mr. Shaub for sticking to his guns.
In the event, there were no blockbuster revelations. The ethics standards generally restrict what former lobbyists, businesspeople and others with preexisting ties can do within an administration. Specific waivers allow an ex-fossil-fuel lobbyist to advise Mr. Trump on energy and environmental issues; no surprise there. Chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon can communicate with Breitbart News, the conservative website he ran before joining the Trump campaign. Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway is allowed to stay in touch with the conservative groups that had been clients of her polling firm. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is permitted to communicate with the Republican National Committee, which he ran before entering the Trump administration.
Yet the lack of big news underscores an important point. Transparency does not have to expose significant wrongdoing in order to be essential. It clarifies for the public the connections of presidential advisers. If Mr. Trump wants a former oil lobbyist running his energy policy, we think he is entitled to have that, even if it would not be our choice. But the public should know. It should know that Mr. Trump’s 14 waivers far exceed President Barack Obama’s pace in exemption-granting, suggesting that Mr. Trump cannot boast that he has drained the swamp. Rather, this president will rely on former lobbyists like many of his predecessors.
Openness also discourages egregious behavior, particularly among mid- and lower-level staff who are not under constant media scrutiny. Presidential advisers will understand that they cannot hold meetings or hire people with the expectation that the public will not notice.
For similar reasons, the Trump White House should accept other transparency measures that it has so far resisted. The president has not released his tax returns, leaving voters with an incomplete sense of how he conducted his business life and what conflicts of interest he brings to the job. The Trump administration has refused to disclose White House visitor logs, which not only obscures who is meeting with whom but also removes an important check on staff behavior; former Obama administration officials report that releasing those logs discouraged meetings that should not have happened.
It took persistence from Mr. Shaub to persuade the administration to release the waivers. Similar persistence should be applied regarding Mr. Trump’s tax returns and other relevant records.