Shad­ows of secrecy spread across fed­eral gov­ern­ment

The Republican Herald - - LOCAL/NATION - By lau­rie Kell­man

WASHINGTON — There are cracks in the cur­tains Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tried to draw around the gov­ern­ment early in his pres­i­dency, but the sliv­ers of light aren’t mak­ing it eas­ier to hold fed­eral of­fi­cials ac­count­able for their ac­tions.

Trump still re­fuses to di­vest from his real es­tate and ho­tel em­pire or re­lease vir­tu­ally any of his tax re­turns. His administration is vig­or­ously pur­su­ing whistle­blow­ers. Among scores of va­cant se­nior jobs in the gov­ern­ment is an in­spec­tor gen­eral for the Depart­ment of En­ergy — led by Sec­re­tary Rick Perry, for­mer gover­nor of Texas — as it helps drive the re­gion’s re­cov­ery from Hur­ri­cane Har­vey.

Re­build­ing from the deadly storm seems cer­tain to be a $100 bil­lion-plus en­deavor in­volv­ing mul­ti­ple fed­eral de­part­ments and an army of gov­ern­ment con­trac­tors. If the ghosts of Ka­t­rina, Sandy and other big storms are guides, the bo­nanza of tax­payer dol­lars is a recipe for cor­rup­tion. And that makes trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity all the more crit­i­cal for a pres­i­dent who has bris­tled at the sug­ges­tion of ei­ther one.

“This is an administration that wants to do things their own way and a pres­i­dent that wants to do things his own way,” said Rick Blum, di­rec­tor of News Me­dia for Open Gov­ern­ment, of which The Associated Press is a mem­ber. “(Trump) is frus­trated by the in­sti­tu­tions our founders es­tab­lished. And he’s go­ing to have to learn that the pub­lic de­serves a free and in­de­pen­dent press.”

To be sure, Trump has not backed off his fury with the me­dia or his brand­ing of re­porters as “enemies of the peo­ple” who want to harm the coun­try. He still calls rev­e­la­tions he doesn’t like “fake news.” And he tweets un­truths him­self, in­clud­ing that he wit­nessed Har­vey’s dev­as­ta­tion “first hand” dur­ing his first visit to Texas on the edges of the disas­ter zone.

Still, a new slate of top aides, in­clud­ing White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and pres­i­den­tial spokes­woman Sarah Huck­abee San­ders, seems to have opened pin­pricks of light and low­ered the tem­per­a­ture in the daily White House brief­ing.

Trump has let fade his threat to scrap the daily ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sions in fa­vor of writ­ten ques­tions and re­sponses since the dis­missals of Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer and Steve Ban­non from his in­ner cir­cle. Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy Devos gave the AP an in­ter­view about ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy.

“Pres­i­dent Trump and his administration are com­mit­ted to trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity through­out the gov­ern­ment,” the White House said in a state­ment is­sued Satur­day to The Associated Press. “The administration is re­spon­sive to pub­lic records re­quests, in­sti­tuted new lob­by­ing stan­dards for po­lit­i­cal ap­pointees — in­clud­ing a five-year ban on lob­by­ing and a life­time ban on lob­by­ing for for­eign coun­tries — and ex­panded and el­e­vated ethics within the White House Coun­sel’s of­fice.”

Still, ques­tions per­sist about how com­mit­ted the administration will be in mak­ing its ac­tions trans­par­ent. This past week, open gov­ern­ment and First Amend­ment ad­vo­cates crit­i­cized the administration’s re­sponse to a law­suit that sought the vis­i­tor logs for the pres­i­dent’s Mar-a-lago re­sort in Florida. They said it’s im­por­tant for the pub­lic to know who has ac­cess there to the pres­i­dent, who has made seven trips to his prop­erty this year.

The watchdog groups re­ceived only a list of 22 Ja­panese of­fi­cials who had joined their coun­try’s prime min­is­ter at the prop­erty dur­ing a Fe­bru­ary trip. In a let­ter, Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cials said any records be­yond those names were re­lated to the pres­i­dent’s sched­ule and were there­fore ex­empt from pub­lic records laws.

“The gov­ern­ment be­lieves that Pres­i­den­tial sched­ule in­for­ma­tion is not sub­ject to” the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act, they wrote. Noah Book­binder, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the watchdog group Cit­i­zens for Re­spon­si­bil­ity and Ethics in Washington, de­scribed the move as “spitting in the eye of trans­parency.”

The Trump administration also has served no­tice that the ex­ec­u­tive branch could ig­nore some in­for­ma­tion re­quests from Congress, with a few ex­cep­tions.

“Non­sense,” Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley, an out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate of open gov­ern­ment, said. “Shut­ting down over­sight re­quests doesn’t drain the swamp, Mr. Pres­i­dent. It floods the swamp.”

Mem­bers of the administration have re­sisted be­ing ques­tioned. Some White House brief­ings were de­clared off-lim­its for video or au­dio. And in July, dur­ing the pres­i­dent’s se­cond over­seas trip, the administration in­sisted that a brief­ing by Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son on Trump’s meet­ing with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin be off-cam­era. Trump also barred the U.S. me­dia from his White House meet­ing with Rus­sian of­fi­cials, only to see photos of the Oval Of­fice ses­sion sur­face in the Rus­sian me­dia.

The signs of strug­gle in­cluded the res­ig­na­tion in July of the gov­ern­ment’s ethics chief, Wal­ter Shaub, af­ter an ex­tra­or­di­nary pub­lic fight with Trump’s lawyers over po­ten­tial con­flicts of in­ter­est. Shaub, an Obama ap­pointee leav­ing short of the end of his five-year term, had tried un­suc­cess­fully to get Trump to fully di­vest from his busi­ness em­pire.

As with most new ad­min­is­tra­tions, Trump’s Jus­tice Depart­ment has not is­sued its own its of­fi­cial pol­icy on com­ply­ing with one of the cor­ner­stones of open gov­ern­ment, the fed­eral Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act.

“Trump and his clos­est aides ap­pear to have lit­tle re­spect for the very pro­cesses of gov­ern­ment, and there­fore lit­tle ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the pub­lic’s need to know of them as part of our demo­cratic process,” said Daniel J. Met­calfe, the found­ing di­rec­tor of the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s Of­fice of In­for­ma­tion and Pri­vacy who teaches secrecy law at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

Seven months into his pres­i­dency, Don­ald Trump still re­fuses to di­vest from his real es­tate and ho­tel em­pire or re­lease vir­tu­ally any of his tax re­turns. His administration is vig­or­ously pur­su­ing whistle­blow­ers.

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