President Donald Trump wants it both ways: He wants to be credited with being “the most transparent president” in history, and he doesn’t want to have to be transparent at all. Trump has repeatedly tried to block information about him and his administration at every turn.
Last week, the president ordered former White House personnel security director Carl Kline, who now works for the Defense Department, not to comply with a congressional subpoena over his role in approving dozens of initially rejected security clearances.
The president also ordered former White House counsel Donald McGahn not to comply with a subpoena related to testimony he provided to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators. In that testimony, McGahn revealed that Trump had personally asked him to fire Mueller.
On Tuesday morning, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway complained that House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) was “dangling arrests of innocent citizens for not complying with subpoenas.” Seemingly disregarding the legal force subpoenas carry, she added, “I think Congress needs to calm down a little bit on this.”
Attorney General William Barr is also balking at his upcoming appearance before Nadler’s committee, objecting to a plan to have both parties’ committee counsels question him on his handling of the Mueller report.
And as White House aide Stephen Miller spearheads new crackdowns and overhauls of the immigration system — reportedly pushing out several Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials in the process — the administration has rejected the House Oversight Committee’s invitation to have him testify.
Trump has blocked the Department of the Treasury from turning over his tax returns to Congress, a refusal that — according to a clearly written law — could send Secretary Steven Mnuchin to jail. This week, Trump also filed a clearly frivolous lawsuit against Deutsche Bank and Capital One, attempting to block them from complying with subpoenas to overturn many of his financial records.
And just last week, Trump reiterated on several occasions that he has been “the most transparent president and administration in the history of our country by far.” But he also added, “I say it’s enough,” suggesting he owes no further transparency to the current investigation efforts.
Meanwhile, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), chairman of the House Oversight Committee said that the administration “has not turned over a single piece of paper to our committee or made a single official available for testimony.”
Trump has a long history of blocking information from public access. For example, in just his first few months in office, he ended the Obama administration’s policy of publicly disclosing White House visitor logs. This means there is no public accountability for who is meeting with the president and his advisers, be they lobbyists, those in business with the Trump organization, or foreign officials. This, despite the fact that Trump had previously criticized President Barack Obama for not being transparent enough with this records.
The same policy extends to Mar-a-Lago, where Trump spends many weekends throughout the year — at taxpayer expense. In fact, the Secret Service confirmed “there is no system for keeping track of presidential visitors at Mar-a-Lago.” Any record of Trump’s schedule that might reveal who he met with while there is privileged and can’t be released to the public. Mar-a-Lago explicitly sells access to the president for those who can afford it, including for its New Year’s Eve party and other events. Earlier this month, a Chinese woman carrying malicious software on a thumb drive successfully bluffed her way into the resort, revealing just how lax security and accountability are at Trump’s favorite getaway.
Mar-a-Lago isn’t the only Trump property under scrutiny. The Constitution’s “Emoluments Clause” expressly prohibits government officials from receiving gifts or payments from foreign officials. Many foreign officials have made no secret of their hope to impress Trump by spending money at his properties, including his hotel just a few blocks from the White House. But the administration said early on that it’s “not practical” to keep track of whether all of these profits run afoul of the Constitution — let alone whether they signify undue influence.
Last year, the White House announced it would no longer transcribe conversations between Trump and foreign leaders. “Readouts” of these phone conversations were lacking in detail — with more news often coming from foreign governments’ descriptions of the same calls. Since that change, there is no longer any White House record to document if Trump spoke with foreign leaders, let alone what they may have discussed.
This opacity has extended to Trump’s cabinet as well, many of whom now keep their schedules secret. As a result, there is no record of where top administration officials are traveling or with whom they are meeting. Some departments may even be violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by refusing to release appointment calendars with this information after the fact.
To the extent the administration is complying with FOIA, it is log-jamming the release of public information as much as possible. A report last year found that in a record number of FOIA requests (78 percent), the administration provided either censored files or none at all, claiming it could find no information related to the requests in over half those cases. This could be obstruction or an indication that staffers simply are not looking hard enough to find the information, or the product of a severely understaffed administration.
Press access also has become tightly controlled. Aside from Trump’s very short pre-travel Q&As on the south lawn of the White House over the roar of Marine One, he has given very few solo press conferences. His last one was in September, and it included explosive attacks on the media and prompted the White House to try to suspend the press pass of CNN’s Jim Acosta.
Though Conway or White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders can be seen most mornings exclusively on Fox News, the administration has virtually eliminated daily press briefings. Last week, Sanders held the first briefing since March 11, but it was a “kids-only” briefing for the children of reporters participating in “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.” None of the credentialed journalists had an opportunity to ask a question. Trump admitted earlier this year he told Sanders “not to bother” with briefings anymore because he doesn’t like the coverage he receives.
The reason Sarah Sanders does not go to the “podium” much anymore is that the press covers her so rudely & inaccurately, in particular certain members of the press. I told her not to bother, the word gets out anyway! Most will never cover us fairly & hence, the term, Fake News!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 22, 2019
The Sunlight Foundation, an organization dedicated to government transparency, has described the Trump administration as “a secretive administration, allergic to transparency, shadowed by global conflicts of interest, [and] hostile to the essential role journalism plays in a democracy.” Trump and his lackeys may repeatedly boast superlative transparency, but they literally have nothing to show for it.
Ryan Koronowski contributed reporting to this story.