Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed he’s the most transparent president in American history, but just in the span of a week, his administration has stonewalled a number of inquiries for information to be made public.
The lack of transparency includes refusing to share how much the Secret Service has spent protecting the President and his family, a detailed and consistent justification for the targeted strike that killed Iran’s Qasem Soleimani, key Ukraine-aid related documents at the heart of the impeachment case and an undisclosed White House meeting with a top Saudi official.
The administration’s refusals to provide information to Congress and the public reaches far beyond what occurred over the last week.
The White House has also virtually eliminated the longstanding White House press briefing, having not held one in more than 300 days. Trump has continued to speak to the press, albeit under favorable circumstances. He responds frequently to reporters’ questions in controlled environments where he can quickly cut questioners off or ignore them entirely – such as when he’s in the Oval Office for a photo opportunity or as the loud buzz of Marine One chops the wind.
But the lack of transparency has been systemic.
During the impeachment hearings and in further congressional investigations, members of the administration have refused to testify before Congress, even under subpoena. Agencies including the Office of Management and Budget, the Defense Department, the State Department and the White House turned over none of the documents requested by the House during the impeachment process. And public records of what they discussed are scant.
The President’s habit of noncompliance is, in some ways, an effective strategy. Special counsel Robert Mueller revealed in congressional testimony last year that it was the reason why he wasn’t subpoenaed during the Russia investigation.
Mueller revealed that when investigators were having little luck securing an interview with Trump and under pressure to hold a speedy investigation, they decided against subpoenaing the President because “he would fight the subpoena, and we would be in the midst of the investigation for a substantial period of time.”
There was even a lack of disclosure during the President’s most recent physical. Though there’s typically some press fanfare about the exam, Trump’s most recent physical was not on his public schedule and the visit did not follow Walter Reed Medical Center’s protocol for a routine visit.
Requests for Secret Service protection costs
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin is opposing Secret Service cost disclosures related to travel by Trump and his family until after the presidential election, The Washington Post first reported Wednesday.
Mnuchin agreed to requirements that the agency disclose the President’s and his adult children’s travel, but Mnuchin has reportedly pushed back against Democrats’ stipulation that such disclosures begin by 120 days after the bill’s passage, as he wants them to start next year.
People monitoring Mnuchin’s proposal told the Post that his insistence on reporting starting in 2021 probably will limit Democratic support for the proposal.
Requests for Ukraine documents
Last Friday, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration is withholding 20 emails pertaining to frozen Ukraine military aid between a top aide to Trump’s acting chief of staff and an official at the Office of Management and Budget.
The emails, which are part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Times, are between Robert Blair, an assistant to Trump and senior adviser to acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and Mike Duffey, a Trump political appointee who’s the budget official responsible for overseeing national security money.
The withholding of the emails highlights how extensively the administration has refused to disclose to the public or to Congress information about Ukraine that led to the President’s impeachment, and the standoff over public records could result in a judge’s intervention.
Dionne Hardy, the Office of Management and Budget’s Freedom of Information Act officer, said the disclosure of the emails “would inhibit the frank and candid exchange of views that is necessary for effective government decision-making.”
An undisclosed Oval Office meeting
The White House was criticized Tuesday after the press learned that an Oval Office meeting between Trump and Saudi Vice Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman had not been publicly disclosed.
The public only learned about the Monday meeting between the two leaders after a statement and photos were released by Saudi Arabia – an atypical circumstance when the President’s meetings with world leaders are disclosed in the President’s public schedule.
Trump later tweeted about the meeting.
In past administrations, the press and the public would typically learn of the US President’s calls with foreign leaders when the White House put out a statement soon after the call had wrapped. But like the Oval Office meeting, the Trump White House has appeared to sometimes delay and withhold the disclosure of phone conversations with world leaders.
Explaining Soleimani’s ‘imminent threat’
Lawmakers were left unsatisfied in the wake of a Trump administration briefing on the justification for launching a strike on an Iraqi airport that killed top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani last week.
Administration officials have publicly asserted that the strike was meant to head off an imminent attack on American lives, which serves as the legal justification for the strike happening without congressional approval or debate.
But the Trump administration’s shifting answers on the issue have caused some lawmakers to challenge the White House on its decision.
Republican Sen. Mike Lee said briefers left just over an hour after they’d begun, “while they’re in the process of telling us that we need to be good little boys and girls and run along and not debate this in public.”
Multiple lawmakers also said they saw no specific intelligence that pointed to an imminent threat from Soleimani that justified the strike.
A day after the Hill briefing, the President claimed that Soleimani was plotting to blow up several US embassies.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated the claim on Friday, saying US intelligence indicated that a threat was imminent, with the caveat that the timing of the attacks was unclear. He also asserted that lawmakers were informed about the embassies threat during the classified briefing.
But lawmakers in the briefing are beginning to push back on Pompeo’s characterization.
The top Democrat in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, said Friday that he did not get answers to his requests for specific information on the intelligence leading the administration to believe that Soleimani posed an imminent threat that needed to be eliminated in order to be resolved.
“I just heard Secretary Pompeo’s remarks and I can tell you he wasn’t at the same briefing that I was in,” Menendez told MSNBC. “I didn’t get the answer to any of (my) questions. So, I don’t know what the Secretary is talking about.”
CNN’s Ryan Browne, Paul LeBlanc, Kevin Liptak, Veronica Stracqualursi, Katelyn Polantz Oliver Darcy and Caroline Kelly contributed to this report.