Given that Donald Trump has described journalists as “scum,” “sleaze” and “horrible people,” it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the president-elect refrained from inviting the press onto his plane last week on his first journey to the White House.
Indeed, Trump won while defying decorum in just about everything, including his decision to withhold his tax returns — something no other presidential candidate has done in 40 years. Once he takes office in January, however, he becomes subject to laws and policies designed to force all presidents to tell the public what they’re doing.
He will have less legal recourse for secrecy than previous administrations, thanks to a new law that makes a presumption of openness for federal records binding on all presidents.
And he will face a small but dedicated group of advocates who are willing to go to court to enforce transparency in Washington.
After relentless legal action to pry loose records of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices, Judicial Watch called last week for Trump to “commit to a transparency revolution.”
Trump voters “are expecting transparency and accountability and a commitment to have the government finally let the public know what it’s up to, without too much of a hassle,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch.
Fitton said Judicial Watch has gone to court 300 times to get records out of the Obama administration, and about 70 lawsuits are active. “I expect we’ll be filing many more lawsuits during the Trump administration,” he said.
Those who criticized President Obama for falling short of his promise to run the most transparent administration in history are bracing for a far more combative four years in Washington.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation has labeled Trump an “enemy of press freedom.” The American Civil Liberties Union has vowed to use its “full firepower” to keep Trump from trampling the Constitution. The Sunlight Foundation called Trump’s record on openness so far “deeply discouraging.”
“By most measures Trump was the least transparent presidential candidate in modern history,” said Alex Howard, senior analyst for the Sunlight Foundation.
Trump would be wise to open up about his business entanglements, especially with companies controlled by foreign governments, or else face constant accusations of corruption, said University of Minnesota law Prof. Richard Painter, who worked from 2005 to 2007 as chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.
Besides, in the era of WikiLeaks and hacks of even classified documents, that information will get out anyway, Painter said. “There’s nothing that doesn’t leak,” he said.
For now, many who work for openness in government are tempering their rhetoric, out of a hope, however faint, that Trump might find common ground with them. While he has whipped up hostility toward the media, the primary enforcers of transparency, Trump has said little directly about how he would approach the issue as a public official.
“It is trying to read the tea leaves right now,” said Sean Moulton, open government program manager of the Project on Government Oversight.
Those tea leaves are few. Trump’s campaign website includes a pledge to defend Americans’ constitutional rights, including the freedom of speech and press. There’s a similar pledge on his transition website, greatagain.gov, though freedom of the press isn’t mentioned specifically.
“The Constitution declares that as Americans we have the right to speak freely, share and live out our beliefs, raise and protect our families, be free from undue governmental abuse, and participate in the public square,” it says.
There’s also a reference to the Freedom of Information Act, in the section seeking applicants for more than 4,000 federal jobs. It’s an alert that information they provide could be disclosed to the public.
So what does the Trump transition team have to say about transparency? I followed greatagain.gov’s instructions for media by sending an e-mail with my question and deadline.
As of Friday afternoon, I was still waiting for a response.
Contact James Eli Shiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-673-4116.