Shadows of se­crecy be­gin to spread across fed­eral gov­ern­ment

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - NEWS - 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.

But there’s a far longer record of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s se­crecy, de­spite Trump’s cam­paign vow to “drain the swamp” of Wash­ing­ton.

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

“Non­sense,” said Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley, an out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate of open gov­ern­ment. “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. Asked what the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is do­ing to foster open­ness in gov­ern­ment, a White House spokes­woman did not re­spond.

“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.

Trump’s core sup­port­ers seem to be OK with this, he said, “as if new de­grees of fed­eral gov­ern­ment se­crecy are ac­tu­ally bet­ter for the coun­try.”

It’s not just the White House.

Pro­ceed­ings of the House and Se­nate are tele­vised live, as are many con­gres­sional hear­ings. But Se­nate lead­ers this year briefly tried to bar re­porters from con­duct­ing tele­vised hall­way in­ter­views with­out per­mis­sion. And Se­nate Ma­jor­ity leader Mitch McCon­nell opted to pri­vately ne­go­ti­ate an ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful bill to over­haul Obama’s Af­ford­able Care Act. Clos­ing the be­gin­ning of the bill-writ­ing process is un­usual, though when the orig­i­nal bill was passed, ne­go­tia­tors closed it at the end, to get a fi­nal deal.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion in its fi­nal year spent a record $36.2 mil­lion on le­gal costs de­fend­ing its re­fusal to turn over fed­eral records un­der FOIA, an As­so­ciated Press anal­y­sis showed ear­lier this year. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion also set records for out­right de­nial of ac­cess to files, re­fus­ing to quickly con­sider re­quests de­scribed as es­pe­cially news­wor­thy, for ex­am­ple.

JACK OH­MAN — THE SACRA­MENTO BEE VIA AP

This 2017 il­lustration by Jack Oh­man with The Sacra­mento Bee shows a car­i­ca­ture of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump as an eclipse, cre­ated to ad­dress public records ac­cess is­sues.

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