President Donald Trump won’t release White House visitor logs, he refuses to hand over his tax returns, he made staffers sign non-disclosure agreements and he’s balking at congressional investigators.
Yet during a Rose Garden speech on Wednesday, he again proclaimed himself “the most transparent president” in U.S. history, adding to the reporters gathered before him, “I think most of you would agree.”
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It may be true that Trump reveals more of his personal thoughts and emotions than any of his predecessors. But by most other measures of presidential transparency, including the congressional oversight at issue during his White House appearance Wednesday, Trump operates behind dark-tinted windows.
The end to White House visitor logs, a way for the public to see who is getting direct access to the most powerful man in America, is a break from Obama administration practice. He’s the first president in decades not to release his tax returns. No modern White House has held as few daily press briefings as Trump’s, a ritual his Pentagon and State Department have also largely phased out. And while many presidents have battled Congressional oversight requests, Trump has dismissed the queries of House Democrats as illegitimate partisan inquests.
All of which has many critics saying that Trump has it backwards.
“It is for sure the least transparent administration in modern history,” said Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, a prominent Washington consumer advocacy group.
Norm Ornstein, a longtime government reform advocate and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, called the Trump administration “the opposite of transparent.” Trump’s statement, he deadpanned, “made me laugh — before I cried again.”
Even by the standards of Trump’s penchant for embellishment and falsehoods, Trump’s claim of unprecedented transparency — which he and his aides have made repeatedly — is particularly outrageous to the cadre of outside groups who’ve spent the last 2.5 years clashing with an administration they view as deeply secretive.
There is no universal definition of government transparency. But the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service defines transparency as “the disclosure of government information” that can be used to “hold the federal government more accountable for its actions or inactions.”
Measured by that sort of standard, critics say, Trump has fallen far short.
Within the first year of Trump’s presidency, the federal government denied or censored more public information requests than at any time in the last decade. And Freedom of Information Act lawsuits intended to force the administration to turn over records reached a record high last year, increasing by nearly 70 percent compared with the last full fiscal year of President Barack Obama’s term.
“There’s only one way in which he’s the most transparent president and that’s that we can see him broadcasting his thoughts on Twitter when he gets angry in the morning,” said John Wonderlich, the executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a government accountability group. “Otherwise, it’s ridiculous.”
White House officials counter that Trump is more accessible than any modern president, broadcasting his thoughts to his millions of followers everyday, answering shouted questions from reporters and granting regular print, television and radio interviews. By that measure, the public likely has a better understanding of Trump’s minute-to-minute opinions than they did of other recent presidents, who were often reluctant to spout off in public until their ideas had been vetted by their advisers.
Though White House aides hold up Trump as a pillar of accessibility, they have also sought to tightly control Trump’s interactions with the media. Trump’s exclusive interviews tend to be with friendly news outlets. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last appeared in the press briefing room in April to answer children’s questions during “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day,” and White House officials argued that her answers should be off the record.
Watchdog groups said accessibility alone isn’t enough to claim the transparency mantle.
“I don’t think that’s meaningful transparency,” said Liz Hempowicz, public policy director at the Project on Government Oversight, adding that the true transparency requires a government-wide commitment across federal agencies.
Hempowicz and other experts noted that the lack of transparency at federal agencies has massive consequences for the public, but often gets less attention than Trump’s headline-grabbing statements.
Just this week, for example, the Washington Post disclosed the existence of an internal Defense Department memo restricting the way the Pentagon shares information with Congress. And POLITICO recently detailed efforts by the Agriculture Department to reassign nearly all its researchers who study the economic effects of climate change, trade policy and food stamps, in what employees call a crackdown on economists whose assessments don’t square with Trump’s policies.
Then there is Trump’s categorical rejection of House Democratic oversight requests, including the extraordinary use of lawsuits to fight back against his investigators.
Trump’s claims of unprecedented transparency seem to be increasing as he grows more frustrated with the investigations encircling him. Aides and associates say Trump is furious that the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report has not dampened appetites for more investigation into subjects like his finances and tax returns.
The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.
On Wednesday, Trump lashed out at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for accusing him of engaging in a “cover-up,” countering that his administration had cooperated extensively with Mueller’s inquiries. Trump did give current and former staffers the green-light to participate with Mueller, although he himself refused to sit for an in-person interview, answering written questions instead.
“I think most of you would agree to this,” Trump said after abruptly ending a meeting with Democrats and vowing not to work with them until they end their investigations. “I’m the most transparent president, probably, in the history of this country. And instead of walking in happily to a meeting, I walk in to look at people that had just said I was doing a cover-up. I don’t do cover-ups.”
Trump isn’t the first president to throw around transparency-related superlatives. Soon after winning the presidency, Barack Obama vowed to make his administration the most transparent in history. And he did take steps toward that goal, including through the first-ever release of White House visitor logs. But watchdog groups often complained that Obama was betraying that promise when he blocked access to records or his Justice Department prosecuted government leakers.
“The [Obama] administration’s war on leaks and other efforts to control information are the most aggressive I’ve seen since the Nixon administration,” former Washington Post editor Len Downie wrote in a 2013 report.
“It’s unwise for a president to make a statement like that” unless he can back it up, Hempowicz said of Obama’s boast, noting that good government groups criticized the 44th president throughout his time in office. “It makes it very easy for us to push back.”