Trump Is Taking Action Without Sharing Basic Information With the Public

Trump has been slow to post Executive Orders, official memos, and speech transcripts to official communication channels, creating a "transparency theater."
January 23, 2017, 5:08pm
Image: Shutterstock

On Friday evening, Donald Trump issued his first Executive Order as president, a move "minimizing the financial burden" of the Affordable Care Act. Nearly three days later, the text of the order hadn't been posted to the official White House website or to the Federal Register, an official record of the actions of the executive branch and its agencies.

Other official actions that should be on the site—a transcript of Trump's speech to the CIA, a memo issued by Reince Priebus ordering regulatory freezes, Sean Spicer's first press briefing—have also not been posted. The only information on the "Briefing Room" section of this public resource is a transcript of Trump's inaugural address.

Just before this article was published, the first Executive Order had been posted, after Motherboard asked for comment on this story. The administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"To not do it is either a sign of being unprepared or not thinking it's important"

We know these actions have been taken, because members of the media on the White House press list are receiving official notices and official text for the orders, speeches, and Executive Orders. White House visitor access records are "being updated," as are financial disclosures. Instead of posting this information publicly, it's being sent to the press directly, not to the people.

"When the White House doesn't post these things they're failing to reach out to all Americans and give them information," Alex Howard, Deputy Director of the open government accountability group Sunlight Foundation, told me. "They're depending on emails to the press, and that's simply not enough."

When a president issues an Executive Order, it's standard protocol for it to go on the White House website as well as the Federal Register, so that the actual text of the order can be reviewed by the public. Under Obama, this happened immediately.

1st @POTUS tweet signed DJT https://t.co/EuySYmVrPk For transparency, @realDonaldTrump tweets should also be signed: https://t.co/0yX2DQ4HW7 https://t.co/vCKuPCiCuF
— Alex Howard (@digiphile) January 23, 2017

Presumably, the Trump administration plans to update these sections eventually. Some growing pains are to be expected with a new administration, but this is the Executive Branch of the Federal Government, not a move-fast-and-break-things startup.

Howard said that, as one of the Obama administration's earliest efforts, the website's relaunch in 2009 represents digital infrastructure meant to serve the public. As Obama signed executive orders on day one of his presidency, they hit the website in text form, easily accessible to anyone with internet. They rebuilt the website using open-source content management system called Drupal, which remains in place today. Obama didn't take his CMS with him. Trump's team could easily insert text in these blank spaces, but hasn't—either by outright neglect, or incompetence.

"I think it's fair to say at this point, that after a couple of months of transition, they should have been able to hit the ground running," Howard told me. "We're not talking about redesigning the website. We're talking about publishing text to the internet using Drupal. That is really easy to do. To not do it is either a sign of being unprepared or not thinking it's important."

Such information is particularly important considering the information environment the administration is operating in. Spicer held his first press conference on Saturday and told reporters that Trump's inauguration was the most well-attended in history, something that appears to be blatantly untrue according to photos of the event. Meanwhile, Trump is spreading information directly through the press but continues to vilify them, calling into question their credibility with his base. Trump and the National Parks Service have also deleted tweets, a violation of public records law.

List of corporate execs meeting at the WH this morning with Pres Trump: pic.twitter.com/34pGyjC1ZU
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) January 23, 2017

In lieu of plain-text documents and releases on their own website, the Trump administration is using social media to perform what Howard calls "transparency theater." The result of all of this is that there is no one, unified place where people can learn about the goings-on of their Federal Government.

A photo of someone signing a document is not transparency if everyone can't see what the document itself says.