Presidential secrecy and transparency in the age of Trump

The recent flap over the public release of unsubstantiated accusations against President-elect Donald J. Trump has deepened his already tense relationship with the media. Less on display than the fighting between the president-elect and certain news outlets are the likely repercussions for how this and other run-ins will affect the new administration’s handling of issues of presidential access and transparency.

Typically incoming administrations make promises to be more open and transparent in their operations, and these promises certainly create some hope among reporters and other observers of political Washington. Most recently, in 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama made repeated commitments to conduct one of the most open administrations in U.S. history.

{mosads}Like most of his predecessors who had promised to do better, President Obama’s record on openness and transparency ended up subject to considerable criticism. His promises likely were sincere, but governing always looks different from the inside and eventually he adopted secrecy practices that have been firmly institutionalized in the modern presidency. 

Nonetheless, Obama deserves considerable credit for his handling of presidential records. One of his first moves as president was to issue an executive order rescinding President George W. Bush’s 2001 executive order that vastly expanded executive privilege and placed high hurdles to public access of presidential records. Obama stripped from former presidents the ability to create blanket secrecy orders over years-old documents that are part of our national records and paid for by public funds.

Will incoming President Donald J. Trump uphold Obama’s position on open presidential records? Knowing what we do about his executive style leadership, that seems highly unlikely. Indeed, we suspect that his administration will be highly secretive, given the intense distrust of major media and the president-elect’s propensity to communicate his own messages unfiltered. If much of the public follows this style of presidential communication and Trump succeeds at delegitimizing much of the mainstream media in the public’s eye, he will see no reason to disclose anything he doesn’t want known.

With no political office-holding experience and an already bad relationship with the media, we worry about the direction of the incoming administration on transparency issues. Beyond the issue of accountability in government, when a president chooses secrecy over openness the policy and the political results usually are not good. Trump appears likely to not only continue a long-standing pattern of presidents concealing information, but to escalate the practice to new levels.

How can his administration get off to a good start on openness and transparency issues, without conceding the upper-hand to those seeking greater access? First, leave alone the 2009 presidential executive order on presidential records. In this area, we are talking about the disposition of public documents many years into the future, long after the Trump Administration is out of office. There is no harm to his presidency or to any secrecy interests he and his staff may have to allow presidential records to be opened up years later. It’s a take all credit, no cost action.

Second, the new president should sparingly use claims to executive privilege and state secrets. His administration would benefit significantly from developing an official policy for the use of executive privilege that outlines reasonable parameters to avoid situations where documents and testimony are withheld because of a vague claim that disclosure will weaken the presidency or harm national security. Trump would be in a better bargaining position with Congress if such a policy dismisses the idea that executive privilege claims can be used any time merely to deflect congressional requests for information.

Republicans in Congress also have a role to play. GOP lawmakers cannot simply follow President Trump. They should act in the best institutional interests of Congress and the country if and when Trump makes unfounded claims to secrecy in the face of legitimate oversight queries.

This task and responsibly will be a hard one for congressional Republicans in the age of extreme partisanship. Democratic lawmakers did little if anything to challenge Obama when he made dubious secrecy claims.  However, at some point lawmakers of both political parties must stand together in the face of presidential secrecy and push for openness and transparency in government. Otherwise, yet again, lawmakers become complicit in the shift of power away from Congress to the presidency.

Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and the author of the book EXECUTIVE PRIVILEGE. Mitchel A. Sollenberger is associate provost and professor of political science at University of Michigan-Dearborn and the author of the book THE PRESIDENT SHALL NOMINATE.  

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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