Andrew Harnik/AP

Transparency in the Trump Era

To hold government officials and agencies accountable, citizens need timely and accurate information about their work.

“We believe that the more transparency there is in the system, the better the system functions on behalf of the American people,” —President George W. Bush upon signing the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006.

“Let me say it as simply as I can, transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency,” —President Obama on Jan. 21, 2009, the day after his Inauguration.

“I was the most transparent—and am— transparent president in history,” —President Trump on May 24, 2019, in reference to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russian investigation. 

Providing the public with reliable and timely data and information about government activities and policies is something presidents of both parties historically have supported, at least rhetorically. But it’s also something every administration struggles to do well. Trump is no different from his recent predecessors in professing to support transparency, but his administration’s record on sharing information previous administrations (and courts) have deemed the public’s right to know is mixed at best. 

Some observers say the administration has taken important policy steps to improve the way agencies collect and share data, but others cite an abysmal record on releasing information related to policy decisions and activities on immigration enforcement, environmental protection, climate science, and other hot-button issues. Key administration officials and the president himself routinely push “alternative facts” at odds with demonstrable truth and even their own previous statements. Agency websites have been redesigned, effectively obscuring, if not eliminating, information previously available. And the administration’s record is further complicated by the president’s communication style and prolific Twitter use.

Where previous presidents have taken pains to cloak public statements in carefully guarded language, Trump revels in mixing it up with his perceived opponents and the public. His Twitter account seemingly has no filter, and he frequently undermines his own staff and allies with his statements—sometimes with excessive candor. It’s a quality his supporters admire, and in that narrow sense, Trump arguably is the most transparent president in history, as he has claimed. 

But government transparency is about much more than understanding the commander in chief’s mindset. It is central to democracy because it allows the public to hold leaders accountable for their actions. 

Alex Howard, director of the digital democracy project at the grassroots Demand Progress Education Fund, which advocates for more open government, tweeted that Trump’s record on transparency, from his refusal to release his tax returns or White House visitor logs to efforts to thwart investigations into the administration’s activities, including decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine, will continue to have impact long after the president leaves office. 

While acknowledging that all presidents have struggled with transparency, “The Trump administration from the top down hasn’t had an affirmative embrace of the public’s right to know unless it has been specifically attached to the president’s political interests,” Howard told Government Executive. “So what we’ve seen is the weaponization of the rhetoric of transparency and accountability in good government and corruption.”

Historical Context

Recent presidents have taken steps to make the government more transparent. In 2006, President George W. Bush signed into law the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act (co-sponsored by  then Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.) The law required full disclosure of all organizations and entities receiving federal funds starting in fiscal 2007. Then in 2009, shortly after his inauguration, Obama launched a national action plan to promote open government policies. 

However, both the Bush and Obama administrations frustrated and angered transparency advocates. Bush was criticized for secrecy surrounding domestic and military policies following the September 11 terrorist attacks and Obama was criticized for his harsh treatment of government whistleblowers and the secrecy around the administration’s use of drones to kill U.S. adversaries, among other things.

“We’re used to criticizing any administration that comes through,” said Sean Moulton, senior policy analyst at the watchdog Project on Government Oversight. Yet, 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.”

“There’s the maintenance of the facade of transparency in many cases. It looks like it’s happening, but in fact what’s happening is ‘open-washing,’” said Howard. In this administration there is “unprecedented environment where the president of the United States is seemingly out of step with where the facts are in several different, really significant places,” citing the president’s dismissal of the threats posed by climate change and alternation of a weather map to support his incorrect statements during a hurricane.

Nick Hart, CEO of the Data Coalition, a trade group that works to make government information more accurate and accessible, takes a different view: “This administration has really extended and complemented much of the work that had already started in the Obama administration, but really jump started both the enthusiasm and progress for getting agencies to better govern and manage information.” Based on his experience with the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations, he told Government Executive, “Every administration approaches how we use and manage data in slightly different ways. That is partly a reflection of evolving technology, but also different priorities.”

Hart pointed to the Trump administration's Federal Data Strategy to improve the collection and use of federal data as evidence of the administration’s progress on  transparency. The strategy, rooted in the president’s management agenda, “aims to improve the federal government’s ability to gather insights from data over the next decade, laying out expectations for every federal agency to develop ethical governance processes, design programs to plan for data use and promote continuous learning and improvements in agencies,” he wrote in Nextgov, a sister publication of Government Executive. The administration released a final version of the plan on Dec. 23 and implemented the first year’s strategy on Jan. 31.

Watchdog Vacancies  

One way to evaluate an administration’s commitment to transparency is to consider the value it places on inspectors general—the agency watchdogs whose job is to investigate government waste, fraud and abuse. Professor Kathryn Newcomer called IGs a “tremendous asset” for transparency and said that too often political appointees don’t “understand and appreciate” the work inspectors general do. Newcomer and Professor Charles Johnson wrote in their recent book, U.S. Inspectors General: Truth Tellers in Turbulent Times, that from 1978 to 2016, “presidential delays in nominating new IGs account for more of the vacancy duration than does senatorial delay in confirming them once nominated.” They observed it’s “clear that IGs are different from other classes of appointments that have consistent, powerful advocates outside the administration to push for swift nomination and confirmation.”

Many presidents have had contentious relationships with IGs, they note. President Reagan, upon taking office in January 1981, fired all the IGs who had been appointed by President Carter (although Reagan later rehired six); President George W. Bush was accused of politicizing his IGs in a Democratic congressman’s report and in 2014; and under President Obama, 47 of the 73 IGs wrote to congressional oversight leaders claiming the administration was stonewalling their investigations.

Out of the 74 offices required by law to have inspectors general, 12 currently lack permanent watchdogs, according to POGO’s IG vacancy tracker. Nick Pacifico, the POGO associate general counsel who manages the tracker, said the high IG vacancy rate is not unique to the Trump administration. “Obama had similar IG vacancy levels at points in his administration,” Pacifico said. Additionally, several of the current vacancies date back to the Obama administration.  

The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, an independent body that oversees the IG community, launched its own vacancy tracker on Jan. 14.  “No matter how able or experienced an acting inspector general may be, permanent leadership at any organization is important for stability and long-term success,” said CIGIE Chair and Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. 

“There are always tensions between those who are implementing programs and those who are conducting oversight,” said Hart. “But it is certainly paramount that transparency be supported when necessary to ensure these programs are held accountable.”

But the Trump administration’s support for IGs is selective at best., a nonpartisan group associated with the Annenberg Public Policy Center that “aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics,” has detailed many examples in which President Trump has mischaracterized the work of IGs and other federal investigators with regard to Russian election interference and impeachment, among other things. 

“Creeping Secrecy”

Every administration struggles to strike a balance between transparency and security. Much of the work national security and intelligence agencies perform is necessarily classified. But a recent POGO report, “The Pentagon’s War on Transparency,” found that a pattern of “creeping secrecy” at the Pentagon has reached new levels during the Trump administration, although the trend began well before Trump took office. The report cited the George W. Bush administration’s expansion of agencies’ authority to classify documents following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the Obama administration’s warrantless spying program and unprecedented prosecution of whistleblowers. However, POGO found that under Trump’s first Defense secretary, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, “a wave of increased secrecy swept through the Department of Defense,” restricting information formerly shared with the public by prior administrations, such as non-classified troop deployments, data about military operations and civilian casualties.   

“Across the Department of Defense, basic information is becoming harder to find, forcing journalists and the public to rely on leaks, whistleblowers, and, as long as they continue, the regularly scheduled press briefing,” wrote Jason Paladino, POGO’s investigative reporter, who noted that until last summer, the Pentagon had gone for more than a year without conducting a single press briefing. “If [Defense Secretary Mark] Esper and his staff are serious about transparency, they’ll have to do much more than appear in front of a podium to undo the corrosive effects of the Mattis directive.”

Meanwhile, after signing the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act and other spending bills, the president signaled via signing statements he would not comply with all of the bills’ congressional reporting and declassification requirements. This was 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 during the height of the impeachment inquiry.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., raised concerns about the administration's handling of national security information in the aftermath of those events. On Feb. 6 he requested the Government Accountability Office review whether the Trump administration has “hidden material from the American public by over-classifying information … to hide embarrassing or politically damaging information.” GAO told Government Executive it has accepted the request to investigate.

The trend toward greater secrecy can be seen in how the Defense Department handles requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act, the law that governs disclosure of unreleased government records. From fiscal 2014 to fiscal 2018, the number of requests received by the Pentagon decreased by about 7%, but the amount of information withheld increased by 16%, and the backlog of requests reached 11,391—the highest in a decade, POGO found. In fiscal 2018, the government cited FOIA exemptions to justify redacting information in 60% of requests, compared to 47% of requests in fiscal 2014. “Some of that withholding may have gone too far,” said POGO. “The data also shows a large spike in administrative appeals that resulted in a total reversal of the agency’s initial decision to conceal the information.” 

The trend goes well beyond the Defense Department. According to an analysis from the Associated Press, in 2017 the federal government set a record for documents withheld under FOIA. In 78% of the 823,222 requests, people requesting information received censored files or nothing. 

Another indicator of problems is the rise in lawsuits stemming from agencies responses (or lack of responses) to FOIA requests. In January, the FOIA Project reported a “dramatic rise” in pending lawsuits from 456 in fiscal 2001 to 1,448 in fiscal 2019. “Gaining access to government records has often become a frustratingly lengthy battle, and the problem seems to be getting worse rather than better,” the organization said in the report. 

Hart said he is not persuaded that FOIA response data reveals much about the administration’s record on transparency: “I think it’s difficult to say that this administration is any less transparent on the whole than the last one,” he said. “Every agency, since FOIA became law, has struggled to meet the expectations for rapidly turning around FOIA requests.”

POGO’s Moulton agreed that agencies have long-standing problems administrating the FOIA program, but added the “potential for political interference” in the process is “worth noting.” While it was an issue during the Obama administration, “those concerns certainly became sharper for several agencies under this administration.”

Tweeter In Chief 

One thing that separates Trump from his predecessors is his prolific Twitter use. Trump is “uniquely transparent on Twitter,” said Jack Grieve, Birmingham University linguistics professor and co-author of a study on Trump’s Twitter style from 2009-2018. 

“In certain regards Donald Trump has been very transparent,” agrees Dave Levinthal, editor-at-large for the Center for Public Integrity, referring specifically to the president’s use of Twitter to share information. Despite the lack of daily press briefings, “in a way Donald Trump has played the role of his own press secretary.” 

But the president’s use of Twitter is “not an actual disclosure of data, of process. There’s no formality to it. There’s no consistency,” said Moulton. “Government transparency is about establishing thresholds and requirements, so that the public can be guaranteed that they know what's going on.”

A lack of transparency has pervaded much of the the administration's activities, from policy rollouts to decisions about blocking witnesses in the impeachment investigation.

Moulton cites Trump’s executive order to rollback two regulations for every new regulation created and his mandate that all federal agencies cut one-third of the advisory committees they use to solicit outside expertise. In both cases the administration provided no data or rationale supporting the moves, which arguably will have the effect of cloaking government decision-making in greater secrecy. 

Sarah John, formerly director of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project, notes that under Trump, agencies have taken steps to remove data and information from government websites relating to climate change, LGBTQ+ resources and the Affordable Care Act—not because the information is erroneous, but because it touches on contentious issues for members of the president’s political base.

The administration’s marginalization of science is another factor affecting transparency, critics argue. Federal employees at science-based agencies say they have been shut out of decision making. A recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice, written by former government officials, found the system for protecting federal scientists from political interference is broken. The public should be able to view government research and data because “it provides the transparency that deters — and allows us to recognize and root out — manipulation of scientific information [and] it gives the public a chance to test and assess the data on which policy decisions are based, and to improve the quality of that information,” the report said. 

Since Stephanie Grisham became the White House Press Secretary in June 2019, she has not held a single regular press briefing. Instead, she prefers to do studio interviews with conservative outlets such as Fox News, One America News Network and Sinclair Broadcast Group.

On Jan. 11, 13 former White House press secretaries, foreign service and military officials from the four preceding administrations wrote an op-ed for CNN stressing the importance of the regular press briefings to inform the public about what’s happening in the government. “The process of preparing for regular briefings makes the government run better,” they wrote. 

The White House’s handling of the impeachment inquiry points to the gulf between Trump’s rhetoric about transparency and the administration’s actions, transparency advocates say. “If the Trump administration has nothing to hide, then it would follow that there shouldn’t be a problem that these documents are put out into the public domain,” said the Center for Public Integrity’s Levinthal, referring to the hundreds of documents his organization has requested from the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget relating to the administration’s hold on military aid to Ukraine, the issue at the heart of the impeachment charges against Trump. 

The administration also blocked from testifying several high-profile officials with first-hand knowledge of the July 25 call in which President Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “to do us a favor” by investigating his 2020 political rivals. The president himself refused to testify before the House committees. 

As the impeachment hearing began in the Senate on Jan. 21, Alex Howard of Demand Progress cautioned, “The White House counsel’s claims of ‘transparency’ during [the impeachment trial] must be contextualized with Trump’s record of secrecy and lies, from tax returns to visitor logs to FOIA to obstructing the Justice Department and Congress.” 

Long-Term Impact

Whether the Trump administration ends in 2021 or 2025, Moulton believes the “processes are sufficient that they will recover and return to, what would be considered … normal operating levels.” However, “I think it’s a fair question, in terms of whether or not this administration is going to move that needle, on what's considered normal and what's considered expected,” he said. 

During the Obama administration “there were higher and higher expectations” for transparency and even though the government often fell short, there was “positive rhetoric” around the concept, Moulton said, citing the launch of the government information repository and creation of a centralized FOIA portal. “I do worry that after this administration our expectation levels may be lower.” 

Lowered expectations could have far-reaching consequences, said Howard: “We should expect better from our government, whether it’s the second term of a Trump presidency or another administration. These are all issues that go to the heart of how our democracy is supposed to work.” 

Sarah John at the Web Integrity Project said the potential for long-term damage is real. “So much of the Trump administration is sort of precedent setting,” she said. “So you might have people who search for data, expecting it to be available, but finding that it’s not and then not looking for it again in the future. You might also find that subsequent administrations use the precedent set by the Trump administration and don’t put data back up and don’t emphasize expanding access to data.” That could happen no matter what party occupies the White House after 2020, she said.