Evan Vucci / AP

Trump Objects to Certain Transparency Requirements of 2020 Spending and Policy Bills

The provisions he opposes are for both public and classified matters.

Despite signing 2020 spending bills into law last month, President Trump signaled he would not comply with all of their congressional reporting and declassification requirements.

“My administration will treat these provisions consistent with the president’s constitutional authority to control the disclosure of information that could impair foreign relations, national security, law enforcement, the deliberative processes of the executive branch, or the performance of the president’s constitutional duties,” said a signing statement accompanying one of the bills enacted on Dec. 20 to keep government open. He said his authority allows him to “supervise communications by federal officers and employees related to their official duties,” which includes “cases where such communications would be unlawful or could reveal confidential information protected by executive privilege.”

In a separate signing statement for the National Defense Authorization Act, Trump wrote that some provisions “purport to mandate or regulate the dissemination of information that may be protected by executive privilege, including by interfering with presidential control of the process for making a determination that information is protected.”

Trump objected to the bills’ requirements that the administration must prohibit the use of funds to deny inspectors general access to agency records, notify Congress about new military installations overseas and U.S. involvement in Venezuela, alert the United Nations about peacekeeping missions, declassify information about Saudi nationals in the country suspected of crimes, report annually on military cyberspace operations, and submit an assessment of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s finances to Congress, among other things.

“The Trump White House expressed criticism not only of declassification and other public disclosure requirements,” wrote Steven Aftergood, a government transparency advocate and director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy. “It also took exception to dozens of provisions that involve sharing information with Congress, even on a classified basis.”

Aftergood told Government Executive the George W. Bush and Obama administrations also used signing statements for similar purposes. Aftergood said it’s not entirely clear how this could affect agencies’ ability to report to Congress and watchdogs. “Agencies could report the desired information ‘voluntarily’ while denying that they are legally obliged to do so,” he said. “In other cases, the desired report or other action may be deferred or ignored altogether. In rare cases, Congress could seek to raise the stakes by use of subpoena or it could try to use its funding authority to compel compliance.”

In a Dec. 23 blog Aftergood noted: “While the latest White House signing statements convey a rhetorical sense of defiance, they do not by themselves defy or modify the law. But neither do they do anything to advance a resolution of the competing interests at stake.”

The signing statements came about two weeks before President Trump ordered the killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani without officially notifying Congress beforehand, touching off a debate about the legality of the move. More broadly, the Trump administration has had a contentious relationship with transparency, according to experts. 

“We’re used to criticizing any administration that comes through,” said Sean Moulton, senior policy analyst at the watchdog Project on Government Oversight. However, in the Trump administration there have been “far fewer areas where we can even point to and say ‘this is where they are doing well’ and that's pretty unusual. The administration came in and from an early period took an approach, I would say, where less information, less data, was preferred.”