Trump's White House leaves a trail of missing documents

Trump's White House leaves a trail of missing documents
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Just after President Trump’s inauguration, many people who did not support him feared that the government would begin removing information on agency websites the administration didn’t agree with politically. This concern was most evident around those agencies working on climate change issues.

However, the steps to remove information from the public’s view didn’t happen as expected. Agencies did move information from pages on their main websites onto archived pages that, while difficult to navigate, are still publicly available. It was easy to think that the alarm had been for nothing. However, that changed this month.

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First, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sept. 28 that the Treasury Department had taken down an economic analysis from 2012 that contradicts the case the Trump administration has been making for a corporate tax cut.

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinMark Mellman: History’s judgment Trump's motorcade greeted with chants of 'lock him up' in NYC Treasury watchdog probes lack of tax plan analysis from Mnuchin MORE has been arguing that giving corporations an income tax cut would mainly benefit workers, but the 2012 paper found that workers bear only a minority share of the burden of the corporate income tax, according to the piece. Therefore, they would likely only receive a minority benefit from the Trump administration’s policy. While workers bear 18 percent of the burden, owners of capital shoulder 82 percent, the analysis found.  

According to the Journal, a Treasury spokeswoman said the 2012 paper “was a dated staff analysis from the previous administration” that “does not represent our current thinking and analysis.” That’s essentially saying they removed it because they didn’t agree with the analysis.

Then, The Washington Post reported earlier this month that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had removed statistics showing how many Puerto Ricans had electricity and access to drinking water from its website on Hurricane Maria recovery. On October 5, the website stated that only 5 percent of the island had electricity and roughly half had water two weeks after the hurricane hit. The following day, those figures were gone, and the only ones posted reflected positive figures such as the number of emergency responders on the ground, the percentage of open ports and airports, and the fact that all of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are eligible for individual assistance. The electricity and water statistics were restored to the site after the story’s publication.

When asked why the information had disappeared, a FEMA spokesperson said it was “not intentional.” Unintentional or not, it’s sure convenient that only the negative information disappeared.

That same week, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removed its entire Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) library from its website after reports broke that ICE inadvertently posted highly sensitive information about hundreds of individuals on its website. Every executive branch agency is legally required to host an online platform of materials that have been requested and released three or more times under FOIA or that it proactively publishes. The agency did not explain the removal or offer an estimate of its restoration, the website only stated that the library is "temporarily unavailable as it undergoes review."

ICE recently restored the library but still has not explained the incident, the review process, or the steps they have taken, if any, to ensure that such outages do not reoccur in the future.  

There is a popular saying: “If it happens once, it’s a mistake. If it happens twice, it’s a choice.” Taken individually, these acts might not raise alarm bells, but taken together they show a disturbing trend to keep vital information related to the decisions the government is making from the public’s view.

Just like the outrage over the removal of information by FEMA forced the agency to put the information vital to the recovery efforts in Puerto Rico back up, every citizen should be outraged that government information is being removed from the public’s view solely for political reasons.

Danielle Brian is the executive director for the Project On Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C., based non-partisan, non-profit government watchdog.