WASHINGTON – There are cracks in the curtains President Donald Trump tried to draw around the government early in his presidency, but the slivers of light aren’t making it easier to hold federal officials accountable for their actions.
Trump still refuses to divest from his real estate and hotel empire or release virtually any of his tax returns. His administration is vigorously pursuing whistleblowers. Among scores of vacant senior jobs in the government is an inspector general for the Department of Energy – led by Secretary Rick Perry, former governor of Texas – as it helps drive the region’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey.
Rebuilding from the deadly storm seems certain to be a $100 billion-plus endeavour involving multiple federal departments and an army of government contractors. If the ghosts of Katrina, Sandy and other big storms are guides, the bonanza of taxpayer dollars is a recipe for corruption. And that makes transparency and accountability all the more critical for a president who has bristled at the suggestion of either one.
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“This is an administration that wants to do things their own way and a president that wants to do things his own way,” said Rick Blum, director of News Media for Open Government, of which The Associated Press is a member.
“(Trump) is frustrated by the institutions our founders established. And he’s going to have to learn that the public deserves a free and independent press.”
To be sure, Trump has not backed off his fury with the media or his branding of reporters as “enemies of the people” who want to harm the country. He still calls revelations he doesn’t like “fake news.” And he tweets untruths himself, including that he witnessed Harvey’s devastation “first hand” during his first visit to Texas on the edges of the disaster zone.
Still, a new slate of top aides, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and presidential spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, seems to have opened pinpricks of light and lowered the temperature in the daily White House briefing.
Trump has let fade his threat to scrap the daily question-and-answer sessions in favour of written questions and responses since the dismissals of Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer and Steve Bannon from his inner circle. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave the AP an interview about education policy.
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“President Trump and his administration are committed to transparency and accountability throughout the government,” the White House said in a statement issued Saturday to The Associated Press. “The administration is responsive to public records requests, instituted new lobbying standards for political appointees – including a five-year ban on lobbying and a lifetime ban on lobbying for foreign countries – and expanded and elevated ethics within the White House Counsel’s office.”
Still, questions persist about how committed the administration will be in making its actions transparent. This past week, open government and First Amendment advocates criticized the administration’s response to a lawsuit that sought the visitor logs for the president’s Mar-A-Lago resort in Florida. They said it’s important for the public to know who has access there to the president, who has made seven trips to his property this year.
The watchdog groups received only a list of 22 Japanese officials who had joined their country’s prime minister at the property during a February trip. In a letter, Justice Department officials said any records beyond those names were related to the president’s schedule and were therefore exempt from public records laws.
“The government believes that Presidential schedule information is not subject to” the Freedom of Information Act, they wrote. Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, described the move as “spitting in the eye of transparency.”
The Trump administration also has served notice that the executive branch could ignore some information requests from Congress, with a few exceptions.
“Nonsense,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an outspoken advocate of open government.
“Shutting down oversight requests doesn’t drain the swamp, Mr. President. It floods the swamp.”
Members of the administration have resisted being questioned. Some White House briefings were declared off-limits for video or audio. And in July, during the president’s second overseas trip, the administration insisted that a briefing by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin be off-camera. Trump also barred the U.S. media from his White House meeting with Russian officials, only to see photos of the Oval Office session surface in the Russian media.
The signs of struggle included the resignation in July of the government’s ethics chief, Walter Shaub, after an extraordinary public fight with Trump’s lawyers over potential conflicts of interest. Shaub, an Obama appointee leaving short of the end of his five-year term, had tried unsuccessfully to get Trump to fully divest from his business empire.
As with most new administrations, Trump’s Justice Department has not issued its own its official policy on complying with one of the cornerstones of open government, the federal Freedom of Information Act.
“Trump and his closest aides appear to have little respect for the very processes of government, and therefore little appreciation of the public’s need to know of them as part of our democratic process,” said Daniel J. Metcalfe, the founding director of the Justice Department’s Office of Information and Privacy who teaches secrecy law at American University.
Trump’s core supporters seem to be OK with this, he said, “as if new degrees of federal government secrecy are actually better for the country.”
It’s not just the White House.
Proceedings of the House and Senate are televised live, as are many congressional hearings. But Senate leaders this year briefly tried to bar reporters from conducting televised hallway interviews without permission. And Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell opted to privately negotiate an ultimately unsuccessful bill to overhaul Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Closing the beginning of the bill-writing process is unusual, though when the original bill was passed, negotiators closed it at the end, to get a final deal.
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The Obama administration in its final year spent a record $36.2 million on legal costs defending its refusal to turn over federal records under FOIA, an Associated Press analysis showed earlier this year. The Obama administration also set records for outright denial of access to files, refusing to quickly consider requests described as especially newsworthy, for example.
But Obama signed two executive orders and a set of memoranda on his first day in office that directed the government to revert toward openness. One directive reversed policy by President George W. Bush that made it easier for government agencies to deny Freedom of Information Act requests for records. Another effectively repealed a Bush executive order that allowed former presidents or their heirs to keep records secret by claiming executive privilege.
Part of the current administration’s resistance to openness may stem from Trump’s background running a family business.
“If you come out of the private company background and you didn’t have to report to anybody, you basically got to run your own shop and you can just fire people. That’s been Donald Trump’s life,” said Richard Painter, who served as George W. Bush’s White House ethics lawyer. “Then at age 70, suddenly he’s in a job where he’s accountable to other people; there’s a Constitution and a set of rules here.”