It's a Terrible Year for Political Transparency in America

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have both been hostile to the idea of sharing information with voters.

Cheryl Senter / AP

An open government is an honest government, a trusted government, a government directly responsible to people. It says so on the White House website: “Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their government is doing.” But even while the internet made finding and sharing information easier than ever, government transparency in the 21st century has been a bust.

President George W. Bush’s administration changed the Presidential Records Act to make the White House more opaque. After promising to run the most transparent government in history, President Obama has set records for censoring government files or outright denying access to them. On a range of issues, veteran White House reporters say each successive president has brought less openness, honesty, and accountability to the West Wing.

It’s about to get worse. Judging from their actions, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are to transparency what Kryptonite is to Superman.

While Obama severely restricted the public’s access to information under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, his secretary of state effectively gutted the FOIA—at least as it pertained to her. Clinton stored all of her work-related email on a secret server in her home, an unprecedented action that skirted federal policies and put her digital correspondence outside the reach of the general public and congressional overseers.

The FBI is investigating whether the covert email system violated criminal laws involving the protection of U.S. secrets. No investigation is needed to understand that if every government official played by Clinton’s rules, there would be no public access to government email.

A lesser example of her allergy to transparency: The private speeches she gave to Wall Street firms, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars after leaving the State Department. In their Democratic nomination fight, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has pressed Clinton to release transcripts of the speeches to show whether her tough talk against Wall Street today is consistent with the paid remarks.

“I will certainly look into it,” she said in February. More recently, Clinton said she would only release the transcripts if “everybody else” is transparent about their paid speeches. Sanders has complied, which means Clinton won’t do the right thing until every Republican does. No champion of transparency, this one.

Which is what makes Clinton such a lousy advocate against Trump, who among other things has refused to release his tax records.

“So you’ve got to ask yourself, why doesn’t he want to release them?” Clinton asked a Democratic crowd last week. “Yeah, well, we’re going to find out.”

Yeah, well, one might also ask, why did Clinton stash her government email on a homebrewed server? Why won’t she release her speech transcripts?

The shame is that Trump deserves a public shaming. For four decades, presidential candidates have released their tax records. Bill and Hillary Clinton have released annual tax returns since 1977 and she posted eight years of returns on her campaign web site.

Trump refuses. “There’s nothing to learn from them,” he says. That is absolutely untrue. Trump’s tax returns would allow the public to see whether he pays his fair share of taxes, how much he gives to charity, whether his finances are free of conflicts, and whether he’s lying about his wealth.

Before becoming a candidate, Trump repeatedly promised to release his tax returns if he chose to seek the presidency. He now blames a government audit for his reluctance to cough up the documents, but that is a weak excuse.

The only thing stopping Trump from keeping his promise is Trump.

If the metaphor for government transparency is sunshine, Trump is darkness personified. His campaign keeps a “blacklist” of critical reporters. He refuses to say how he would “eradicate” ISIS. He masquerades in telephone calls as his own spokesman. He makes erratic policy shifts while insisting that nothing has changed, such as when his “absolute” ban on Muslim immigrants suddenly became Syria-centric.

What makes Trump the least transparent presidential candidate in modern history is his lack of candor. “There’s never been a presidential candidate like Donald Trump—someone so cavalier about the facts and so unwilling to ever admit error, even in the face of overwhelming evidence,” wrote Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post in a story that aggregated 39 fact-check columns involving Trump, in 69 percent of which he received the worst-possible rating of four Pinocchios.

“Since Trump never takes anything back and often repeats the same false claims,” Kessler wrote, “voters are likely to hear these time and again during the campaign season.”

Lie after lie—read them here and consider how open government would be under President Trump.

I am not drawing an equivalence: When it comes to sleight of hand, there is no equal to Trump. But no matter who wins in November, transparency loses.