In the fall of 2012, Donald Trump criticized then-President Barack Obama for declining to release college transcripts and other records: “Hiding something?,” he asked on Twitter.
That same question has dogged Trump since the presidential campaign, when he broke with decades of tradition and refused to release his tax returns. Now that he’s in the White House, it’s only grown more urgent.
Recently, the Trump administration announced that it will keep White House visitor logs secret. That will make it exceedingly difficult for the public to know which lobbyists and political donors are meeting with the president and his aides.
It’s a particularly worrisome development in an administration that has stocked the White House and federal agencies with lobbyists and consultants — and relaxed the conflict-of-interest rules that might keep them in check. Trump has dropped a rule that prohibits lobbyists from taking jobs at agencies they lobbied in the previous two years. He’s also made it easier for former lobbyists to get waivers allowing them to weigh in on matters that could benefit their former clients.
The Obama administration granted these waivers in very limited circumstances. But it explained them in annual reports and posted them on the Office of Government Ethics website. Trump, as The New York Times recently reported in a story on ethics issues in the administration, is doing nothing of the sort.
“There’s no transparency,” said Walter M. Shaub Jr., director of the Office of Government Ethics, in an interview with the Times, “and I have no idea how many waivers have been issued.”
This isn’t the only area where Obama — Trump’s “Hiding something?” tweet notwithstanding — did a far better job with transparency than the current president. Take the issue of White House visitors.
Responding to a lawsuit filed against his predecessor, Obama voluntarily released more than 6 million visitor records — even as he shielded information on his school-age daughters’ playmates and certain sensitive meetings, like interviews with Supreme Court candidates and national security gatherings.
Late in the Obama years, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that most records of White House visits are not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. So it’ll be tough to impose on the Trump administration the kind of openness the Obama administration embraced.
But the courts are not the only avenue. It’s vital that the public, the press, and Republicans and Democrats in Congress continue to demand transparency from the White House. We’re stuck with this president for at least four years, and we’ve got to keep a close eye on him. It’s one of the most important civic tasks of our time.