The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump keeps ditching the press. But he can’t succeed without transparency.

The new administration shouldn't break with tradition.

What will Trump's win mean for the media and libel laws? (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

President-elect Donald Trump did something unusual last week, barely a day after he’d won. On Thursday, according to the Associated Press, he “refused to allow journalists to travel with him to Washington for his historic first meetings” with President Obama and congressional leaders.

It wasn’t an anomaly. This week, he did it again: On Tuesday evening, he took his family to dinner in New York without informing a press pool or allowing reporters to trail along and wait outside the restaurant.

To those who don’t follow politics and the media closely, this might sound inconsequential. But it’s an enormous departure from a long-standing practice — one meant to ensure the public is kept informed as to what its leader is doing. Trump has now broken with that tradition, choosing opacity over transparency.

But that’s not all.

The AP also reported last week that when “Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a congratulatory telegram to Trump on Wednesday, Moscow spread the word. A phone call with British Prime Minster Theresa May was announced in London. The pattern was repeated for calls with leaders of Israel, Egypt, South Korea and Australia.”

The fact is that Americans are learning of their president-elect’s activities from foreign governments and by happenstance, not from Trump himself or the journalists who cover him.

We’re clearly going down an unfortunate path here. Trump has an opportunity, and he’s about to blow it. In fact, this is what I most feared earlier this year when I joined other national security professionals in opposing Trump, even though I am a lifelong Republican and former appointee in the George W. Bush administration.

The Trump campaign’s war on reality made me question what I saw

Anger at the political establishment — from both parties — has roiled millions of Americans. They want to change the way Washington works. On that, I agree with them.

The only way we’re going to get there, however, is if the next president embraces transparency as a cornerstone of his administration. When millions of Americans have little confidence in their own government — as is the case today — transparency becomes a necessity. Trump can still lead this change.

Obama led a noble, and modestly successful, effort to make government more transparent in 2009. But within a short time, it was clear he would fall far short of his lofty goal of becoming “the most transparent administration in history.” In many ways, the Obama administration quickly became as secretive as previous administrations. In some ways, it became more secretive. The controversial classification of drone strikes may serve as one example.

So how can the Trump administration correct its early mistakes with regard to transparency?

The outsized role of the press in the Trump administration

First, Trump must understand the important role of the news media and its role as a vital Fourth Estate in a strong democracy — although it appears he may be failing to do that. This is something we worked very hard to embrace during my time leading the Office of Public Affairs inside the Defense Department. When I took over in 2008, our relationship with the news media was certainly strained. But when we met with controversy, I insisted that we not shy away from granting media access. It was often difficult, but it was the right thing to do.

For example, even when faced with stiff criticism from certain quarters, we successfully lifted the ban on news coverage of the transfer of U.S. service member remains at Dover Air Force Base. I also fought to allow news organizations access to the trials at Guantanamo Bay. With the support of then-Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, we did our best to create an environment where the media had about the same access there that they would have at a trial on a U.S. military base. This was something the American people needed to see.

Those are just two examples. But they serve to show why Trump should immediately provide his traveling press corps more access — because leaving them behind on trips keeps Americans in the dark. And that’s unacceptable in a turbulent world where any crisis can unfold at any moment. The public must know how the president is responding.

Likewise, leaving people to learn about his activities from foreign leaders is, frankly, outrageous. This is an easy fix. Every president has done this.

And there’s more he should do. Trump should insist that the agencies he inherits comply quickly with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. To boot, he should enlist the help of the Republican-controlled Congress to support stronger language for FOIA laws.

He should also hold more news conferences. Earlier this year, the media criticized Hillary Clinton for her failure to hold a news conference for 278 days. That criticism helped persuade her to begin taking questions from the media on a regular basis again. But now, Trump himself has gone almost 115 days since his last news conference.

And while some of Trump’s supporters have suggested that his very active Twitter account serves as a replacement for news conferences, this couldn’t be further from the truth. He must answer questions on the terms of reporters, in public. That’s an important distinction.

These will be especially important in the lead-up to inauguration, as the public demands to know the names and qualifications of potential Cabinet selections, along with his near-term policy objectives.

Lastly, he should vocally commit to ensuring press freedoms and protection for his traveling press pool. The fact is that reporters covering his campaign events were often harassed by supporters. Again, while this is unacceptable, it’s also an easy fix.

On my first day on the job at the Pentagon, I asked then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates for his “commander’s guidance.” He replied: “Help me break down the blast walls that go up around this place whenever we have bad news.” I took that to heart.

During my time there, I can’t recall a single instance where Gates didn’t take my recommendation to talk to a reporter. That doesn’t mean every reporter got their interview every time they asked. But we were accommodating as often as the secretary’s demanding schedule allowed. He clearly believed in the principle of maximum disclosure with minimum delay.

Trump should heed that lesson. If he intends to follow through on his mandate for change, he’ll make an effort to be better than his predecessors on transparency. That’s how he can rebuild the confidence Americans have lost in their leaders. But, as president, he has to lead. He has to set the right tone. And he needs to do it quickly if he expects his agencies to follow suit.

Let’s hope he does.

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