Secrecy News

Transparency Will Need a Reboot in the Trump Era

The future of transparency in the Trump Administration is uncertain. It will ultimately be determined in practice as the new Administration embarks on its programs, determines its priorities, appoints its personnel, engages with Congress and confronts the public.

On his first full day in office, President Obama famously pledged to conduct the most transparent Administration in history. Though it was imperfectly executed and suffered some reversals, I think that pledge was fulfilled to an impressive extent. More government information was made more easily available to more people than ever before. The reported volume of new national security secrets created in the past two years dropped to historically low levels. Whole categories of information that had previously been off-limits — the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, the President’s Daily Brief, the size of the annual intelligence budget request, among others — were newly subject to declassification and disclosure during Obama’s tenure. If this was not the most transparent Administration in history, then which Administration was?

Donald Trump’s estimation of transparency already appears to be radically different. Although his Twitter persona during the campaign represented a degree of unfiltered candor that is almost alarming in a public official, it was unaccompanied by detailed policy proposals that might have informed the election. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns as a presidential candidate was a startling repudiation of a longstanding norm of American governance. Worse, the fact that this refusal was not considered disqualifying by his supporters suggests that the norm is weaker than supposed. Far from being a given, the value of transparency itself may not be widely understood or shared by many Americans.

It’s not that Trump has promised transparency and failed to deliver. He has promised nothing of the kind. Hypocrisy on this point would actually be a step forward.

In what seems to be the first post-election reference to the FOIA by the Trump transition team, applicants for positions in the new Administration were advised that “One should assume that all of the information provided during this process is ultimately subject to public disclosure, if requested under the Freedom of Information Act.” (also noted by Russ Kick)

This is somewhat misleading, since various types of personal privacy information such as social security numbers would not be subject to FOIA. But perhaps it is a healthy sign that some awareness of the FOIA and its disclosure requirements is already present in the Trump camp.