It’s often said that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” and to honor that sentiment, transparency and free press groups around the nation have celebrated “Sunshine Week” every March. The week is intended to remind our nation’s leaders of the importance of the public’s right to know in order to keep faith in our democratic institutions, and expose transgressions against that trust like waste, fraud and abuse. However, this year is different. We are facing a crisis of corruption and self-dealing, assaults against basic facts and science, and a disturbing rollback of access to government records, which has never been that free-flowing in the first place.
Public Citizen and our allies in the open government community will use this week to make it absolutely clear to the public that the Trump administration has eclipsed basic components of a fair and just democracy: Freedom of Information, Freedom of the Press, and respect for science and data. To make that point, we worked with the artist, Robin Bell, to project a message onto the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Department of Justice: it’s time to stop eclipsing transparency with secrecy.
— robin bell (@bellvisuals) March 11, 2018
We chose the DOJ building for several reasons: it houses the agency that oversees the Freedom of information Act (FOIA) programs for other agencies, but also has engaged in markedly worse open government transgressions under the Trump administration including not providing key information concerning the nature of Attorney General Session’s recusal from the Russia investigation, and refusing to confirm or deny the existence of records, so-called “Glomar” responses. The Sessions DOJ has also taken some steps to push back on free speech rights.
The projection at DOJ kicked-off Public Citizen and our partners’ take on Sunshine Week this year during which we will host a number of online actions to shine a light on how President Trump and his administration have eclipsed transparency with secrecy. Along our open government allies, Public Citizen signed a declaration that was sent to Congressional leaders and the White House highlighting the threats to transparency and detail ways in which this administration has prodigiously exceeded all past administrations’ reticence to open government, a sampling of which are summarized here.
Affronts to the Public’s Right to Know
The Freedom of Information Act (or FOIA,) gives the public the right to access government records subject to nine limited exemptions. Public Citizen has always had to fight hard in Congress and the courts to protect the public’s right-to-know as granted by FOIA from governments that seek to hide their decision-making from transparency’s sunlight out to fear of embarrassment and accountability. But, under the Trump administration, we have seen a marked increase in hurdles to receiving information. For example, we are facing an upswing in denials of fee waivers and responses denying disclosures arguing that requests are “not reasonably specific enough,” even though the information is as specific as its ever been in previous administrations In addition, documents have been returned with heavily-redacted documents that are full of apparent incongruities and misuse of FOIA exemptions.
The Trump Secret Service tried to play shenanigans and transfer documents to another agency in order to keep Public Citizen from gaining information about White House visitor logs for four important government agencies: the Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the Council on Environmental Quality. The administration recently backed down under the pressure from the lawsuit we filed and they settled the case. Soon we will have more vital data to continue to document the extent to which corporations have taken over our government.
On Tuesday, March 13th starting at 9:45am EDT, Public Citizen staff and allies will participate in a Twitter chat highlighting Trump’s eclipsing of Freedom of Information with redactions and denials and provide examples and insights into other affronts on the public’s right to know. Then during the U.S. Senate Judiciary hearing starting at 10:15 EDT, we will be live tweeting in order to provide civil society’s perspective on the Freedom of Information Act. And, at 11am EDT, Public Citizen’s main FOIA litigator will give a Facebook live presentation on using the Freedom of Information Act and shine some real sunshine on how the public’s right to know is being eclipsed by this administration.
Attacks on Truth and Truth Tellers
President Trump and his administration clearly do not like facing the truth—so much they revert to “alternative facts” and “white lies” to hide politically uncomfortable facts. Lying to the people is inexcusable and even in these scandal-tinged times, it cannot go undocumented. From actions like removing data from government websites or censoring climate science information on the Environmental Protection Agency and other agency pages, the administration purposely is hiding information that it doesn’t want the public to have. Other examples that this administration is willing to censor the truth when politically unfavorable: the Department of Labor removed a report about its “tip pooling” rule that showed how employers would take employee’s money and the Treasury department took down a report with unfavorable information for the proving how little workers would actually benefit from tax cuts.
One doesn’t need to follow the president on his Twitter account to know he’s frequently attacking the press, lashing out at legitimate journalistic outlets with “Fake News” claims, not coincidentally this tends to happen after some hard-hitting piece of journalism turns up another scandal tinging the presidency.
Another area where the president and his cabinet have attacked truth tellers is by issuing threats to punish so-called “leakers.” These people are really whistleblowers, and play a critical role in protecting our democracy by raising the alarm about possible wrongdoing that could further poison the public’s trust in government. Public Citizen has partnered with other watchdog groups to provide a training on Thursday, March 15 to teach nonprofit organizations how to work with government whistleblowers who want to report threats like waste, fraud, and abuse. (Say, for example, ridiculously expensive office furniture…)
Increases in Government Corruption
If there’s one thing this administration does well, it’s look out for the personal, financial interests of the Trump family and members of the president’s cabinet. It feels like not a week goes by without some sort of self-dealing scandal is unearthed showing attempts to profit off of the presidency. Starting with not actually divesting from his hundreds of businesses, to his hotels and other properties continuing to take foreign payments, to possible insider trading and officials hawking products sold by his family members, countless ethical whoppers have faced the administration since Trump took office. Wasteful trips to Mar-A-Lago, expensive flights and jet setting on the public’s dime show the sort of abuses taxpayer monies that evidence just the sort of unethical behavior that causes frustration with our government.
And, Trump even tried to sweep self-dealing under the rug by issuing secret and supposedly “retroactive” ethics waivers. Talk about eclipsing government sunshine! Also talking about how corruption in this administration has been increasing will be Craig Holman on Thursday, March 15 at 4pm EDT live on Public Citizen’s Facebook page.
Threats to Constitutional Checks and Balances
Congress plays a critical role in providing checks and balances against harmful actions taken by the other branches of government. However, extreme partisanship has made real accountability and bipartisan oversight by the legislative branch more challenging. Public Citizen has repeatedly called on Congress to force Trump to release his tax returns—without which the public has no idea of the extent to which he and his family will benefit from the recently enacted tax bill that slashed rates for the ultra wealthy and owners of businesses like LLCs, which make up a major portion of the Trump, Inc. constellation of businesses.
Because some Congressional committees have fallen prey to partisanship, the public is still in the dark when it comes to foreign interference in U.S. elections. While Special Counsel Mueller has his job to do to get to the bottom of the Russia investigation, Congress still has a vital role in investigating foreign interference in our democracy and protecting the integrity of our elections but rather than run credible investigations, the committees charged with doing this work, have been mired in partisan maneuvers. Of course, Congress doesn’t need to act alone, a government that was really focused on sunshine would do things like provide better disclosure online election ad funding, but instead the Federal Election Commission is frozen in inaction. On Friday, March 16, Public Citizen is planning to partner with American Oversight and other good government groups to host a Twitter chat on checks and balances as an antidote to the Trump’s administration’s eclipsing of transparency with secrecy, and we’ll be releasing more details soon.
Follow the hashtags #Eclipse #SunshineWeek on Twitter all this week for more updates on how Public Citizen and our partners are exposing the ever darkening cloud of secrecy that has befallen our government.