Donald Trump: Openness, Secrets and Lies

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Image courtesy of the ACLU

Over the New Year, an expose of Donald Trump’s White House, Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, opened up a whole new set of controversies about an already deeply divisive new President. One thing the new book tells us is just how secretive, but also strangely transparent, Trump’s White House is. Trump, it seems, desperately wants to keep secrets but can’t help but be spectacularly open.

Legally, the US FOIA has always been rather slow, cumbersome and legalistic. Enthusiasm for openness has always swung back and forth from president to president, and so has the strength and weakness of openness reforms. Bill Clinton was very keen, George W. much less so and Obama, keen again, revitalised it. Obama, back in 2009, was so pro-openness he was nicknamed ‘the Transparency President’. That was until he started prosecuting whistle-blowers, though he pardoned Chelsea Manning as he stepped out the door in 2017.

Even on a personal level, most presidents have hidden, or at least tried to hide, something. From Kennedy’s and Clinton’s philandering to Nixon’s bombing, everyone in the White House seems to have had something they wanted buried. Woodrow’s Wilson’s incapacitating illness was covered up so completely in 1919 that no one knew that his wife (a direct decedent of Pocahontas, no less) was acting president for more than year.

Donald Trump’s secrecy is, however, on another level. He seems determined to keep things as closed as possible. He has famously refused to release his tax returns and his medical report in 2016 was written ‘in a few minutes’. It seems that non-disclosure agreements abound at the White House and he has also threatened the author of the new book with a law suit (to which the delighted author asked ‘where do I send the chocolates?’).

On a policy level, Trump’s first year has been pretty disastrous for openness. He has pulled the US out of the global extractives transparency initiative that America had been leading. On a day to day level, he has issued secrecy waivers for lobbyists and refused to release White House visitor logs (though politico has now crowd-sourced its own and a NGO has since forced some to be released). His advisor daughter, inspired by Crooked Hillary, appears to have been using private email for public business.

Trump’s only important mention of ‘transparency’ appears to be in reference to his border wall that needs to be ‘transparent’. His reasoning (if we can call it that) is rather novel. Here’s the quote, complete with racist overtones:

One of the things with the wall is you need transparency. You have to be able to see through it…you have to have openings because you have to see what’s on the other side of the wall.
And I’ll give you an example. As horrible as it sounds, when they throw the large sacks of drugs over, and if you have people on the other side of the wall, you don’t see them — they hit you on the head with 60 pounds of stuff? It’s over. As crazy as that sounds, you need transparency through that wall.

Trump needs a ‘transparent’ wall because he fears that ‘people’ on the ‘other side’ may throw over (or, one would presume, catapult) drugs onto the heads of passing innocent American.

Trump hasn’t yet made any direct attack on FOIA yet, though his very attitude to openness will encourage agencies to be, at the very least, less than co-operative. There are reports of departments and agencies, possibly hit by a surge of requests, purposely on a go slow and with ‘higher level officials’ reportedly ‘keeping tabs’ on requests and some agencies severely cutting back on what data they release. It also said that some parts of the US administration, including the FBI, can only be now requested by fax. Yes, you read that correctly. Fax. One sign of trouble is that FOIA law suits and court cases have jumped up since this time last year.

However, the FOIA community is not giving up. They are pursuing visitor logs at Mar-A-Lago, using FOIA to fight the charge of ‘fake news’ and tried to see if the White House is covering up the state of Trump’s mental health, which Newsweek ran under the title ‘Is Trump a Moron? Watchdogs File Freedom of Information Requests to Find Out’. One Texas newspaper has used requests to the US Army and Customs to map the 33 mile route of Trump’s proposed ‘wall’ and also copies of various ‘lines to take’ when the press start asking questions.

Yet, as the Wolff book points out, Trump’s White House is also oddly transparent and open. We have never known this much about a White House. You do not need to search beyond Trump’s own twitter account to know almost everything that the current President is thinking (and, interestingly, all those tweets are covered under the Presidential Records Act). Trump spectacularly demonstrated the power of the president to ‘declassify at will’ when he (accidentally? purposely?) disclosed sensitive Israeli intelligence on ISIS to Russia and again with his pushing for the release of internal memos his own DOJ want kept secret. It is also by far the leakiest administration in modern history. Wolff claims that the biggest leaker, the super-leaker, is Donald J. Trump himself, who spends his evenings ranting to his billionaire friends on the phone.

So what happens next to this secretively open president?

The first thing to say is that Trump certainly fears something coming out. Wolff claims that the Trump family aren’t worried about any ‘Russia’ revelations but about other (worse) secrets hidden in their accounts. The book mentions that, among Trump’s many odd fixations, is an obsession with John W. dean. He was Nixon’s White House Counsel who, fearing he was to be made the Watergate scapegoat, co-operated and gave evidence to the investigating committee in a blaze of damning publicity. Why, I wonder, would Trump fixate upon someone with knowledge of something turning against him and going public?

The second thing is that Trump has a remarkable ability to draw attention to the thing he’s covering up-what’s commonly known as the ‘Streisand effect’. His rants and attacks have attracted the attention of the media and opponents and played no small part in the many ongoing investigations from the intelligence agencies (some of who he has insulted and sacked) and Congress (who he has raved about regularly). His attempt to stop the publication of Wolff’s book has sent it to the top of the bestseller’s list. As the legal gift that keeps on giving, he may even have committed an obstruction of justice in his tweets. If he doesn’t renege on his promise to testify under oath to Mueller, it will be well worth watching.

The third thing is that any Russia collusion or something else would make a promising impeachment case, but it needs proof. Remember, Nixon was caught by his own recordings, not the allegations. Whatever ‘thing’ happened, it needs to have been written down or taped and, most of the time, I think no one’s that stupid (step forward Donald Trump Jr’s publishing of his emails and Trump’s odd ‘recording’ tweet that seemed to hint at some sort of taping system). Records are at the heart of any good openness regime, and normally behind any big scandal. For all his claims of being new or different, whether Trump stays or goes may depend very much on the age old question of whether someone wrote it down or pressed record.

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I’m an academic at Birkbeck College, University of London. All views and thoughts my own.

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