Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, during Wednesday's presidential primary debate defended his failure to fully release his medical records. Former Vice President Joe Biden, right,  said transparency is important but has also faced questions on the issue.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, during Wednesday's presidential primary debate defended his failure to fully release his medical records. Former Vice President Joe Biden, right, said transparency is important but has also faced questions on the issue. John Locher / AP

Democratic Candidates Defend Their Records on Transparency During Nevada Primary Debate

Presidential contenders who have criticized Trump for his secrecy were forced to explain their own actions.  

Democratic presidential candidates who have taken the Trump administration to task for withholding critical information from the public were forced to defend their own records on transparency during Wednesday’s primary debate in Nevada.

“I want to talk about transparency here, because many Democrats, including most of you on stage, have criticized President Trump for his lack of transparency,” said NBC’s Hallie Jackson, one of the moderators of the Las Vegas debate hosted by NBC News, MSNBC and the Nevada Independent. The moderators asked candidates to address their failure to fully share with the public their personal health records, tax returns and non-disclosure agreements, all issues that have plagued Trump as well. 

“A transparent government allows people to participate in the democratic process and to keep informed of government budgets, spending and projects” and “is a powerful weapon against corruption,” according to the nonprofit Coalition for Integrity that advocates for anti-corruption and integrity in government. “Greater transparency with respect to political spending, as well as strong ethics and conflicts of interest laws, have the potential to help increase the public’s confidence in the integrity of elections in the United States...Democracy is best served when elected officials are wholly committed to advancing the public interest.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., defended his limited health disclosures following his heart attack last October. Jackson noted that although Sanders said he would make all of his medical records public, he has only released three letters from his doctors. “What happened to your promise of full transparency?” asked Jackson. 

“We released reports from two leading Vermont cardiologists who described my situation and, by the way, who said Bernie Sanders is more than able to deal with the stress and the vigor of being president of the United States,” Sanders said in response. “Hey, follow me around the campaign trail, three, four, five events today. See how you're doing compared to me.” 

Although the Trump administration has released statements about the president’s health, it has not released his full medical records, a move that has led to many questions. CNN’s Chris Cillizza wrote that Sanders has taken “a page from Donald Trump on health questions” because “if you are comfortable with using Trump as the standard for how transparent a candidate should be when running for the most powerful (and stressful!) job in the country, then you're no better than Trump.”

Candidate Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said he wasn’t as concerned about Sanders’ medical records as he was about his “lack of transparency on how to pay for his health care plan, since he's said that it's impossible to even know how much it's going to cost.” 

Buttigieg has attempted to separate himself from some of his Democratic rivals and Trump on the issue of transparency. After being accused of hiding his work for the consulting firm McKinsey, Buttigieg released the list of his clients in December. “Transparency is a quality the American people should expect from their president,” he said in a statement upon release. “They can also see that I value both transparency and keeping my word.” 

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg dealt with the transparency issue on two fronts. First, he was asked about releasing his tax returns, which is something Democrats have been pressing Trump to do since the 2016 campaign. “People are already voting now,” so in the interest of transparency, “why should Democratic voters have to wait?” to see the records, asked Jackson. Bloomberg chalked it up to the complicated process since he is extremely wealthy and has done business all over the world. 

Next, Bloomberg was pressed about how many non-disclosure agreements he has with former female employees who have accused him of misconduct and if he will release them, so they can tell their stories. Bloomberg said they would remain private. Similarly, Trump has received scrutiny for his use of non-disclosure agreements while in government and throughout his business career

“Look, this is about transparency from the very beginning, whether it's your health record, whether it's your taxes, whether it's whether you have cases against you, whether or not people have signed nondisclosure agreements,” said former Vice President Joe Biden, making the case that transparency is important. He faced his own questions about distancing himself from the impeachment investigation of Trump, which centered around a phone call during which Trump asked the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden and his son’s dealings with Ukraine

Similarly, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said, “I believe in transparency. I had a physical, by the way. It came out well,” challenging Sanders to release his records. Then she challenged Bloomberg to release his tax returns, which is “a major issue, because the president of the United States has been hiding behind his tax returns, even when courts order him to come forward with those tax returns.” 

Regardless if Trump or a Democrat wins in 2020, “I think it’s a fair question, in terms of whether or not this administration is going to move that needle [on transparency], on what's considered normal and what's considered expected,” said Sean Moulton, senior policy analyst at the watchdog Project on Government Oversight. “I do worry that after this administration our expectation levels may be lower.” 

Alex Howard, digital democracy director at the grassroots Demand Progress, recently predicted on Twitter that Trump’s record “will be the subject of scholarship for decades,” citing his refusal to release his tax returns or White House visitor logs, and efforts to thwart investigations into the administration’s activities, including the decision to withhold military aid to Ukraine and shielding of conversations with foreign leaders.