WASHINGTON – It may be National Sunshine Week, but critics and the government’s own reports show that President Donald Trump’s administration is operating a lot in the shadows.
Seventy-eight percent of the 823,222 FOIA requests processed during the first year of Trump’s presidency were withheld, returned censored or the information could not be found, according to an Associated Press analysis.
It is not just documents, either.
Maryland Reps. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, and John Sarbanes, D-Towson, released a video Tuesday outlining what they called the “cloud of secrecy” surrounding Trump and his administration, including the president’s refusal to release his tax returns and unanswered questions about a variety of potential business conflicts, alleged abuses of power and questionable spending involving some members of the cabinet.
Upwards of 50 members of the Trump administration have left or been fired since he entered office. The most recent departure came over Twitter Tuesday when Trump abruptly fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The Justice Department announced earlier this week that Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) data for Fiscal Year 2017 was available for all federal departments.
The release came in conjunction with National Sunshine Week, which Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, called “an annual recognition of the importance of government openness and transparency.” He is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
This year’s Sunshine Week ends Saturday.
Cummings, the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also released a fact sheet outlining actions taken by the administration to suppress government transparency and copies of letters that he sent to the Trump Organization and the Department of the Treasury requesting information about payments made from the Trump Organization to the Treasury Department in connection with foreign entities that did business at Trump properties.
“There is no legitimate reason for the Trump Organization to withhold information about these payments from Congress… complying with the United States Constitution is not an optional exercise, but a requirement for serving as our nation’s President,” Cummings said in one letter.
According to the House Oversight Committee, the documents sought in the letters were first requested last April.
This withholding of information is not unique to the Trump administration. Since 2016, there have been measures put in place by Congress aimed at updating FOIA and holding agencies more accountable.
A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday on the success of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 highlighted some of those issues.
According to testimony from the director of the Office of Government Information Services, Alina Semo, there was a “160 percent overall increase in (the) caseload” of FOIAs between fiscal 2016 and fiscal 2017, which posed a challenge for agencies trying to respond to requests.
“Timely processing of requests and appeals remain a challenge,” David Powner, the director of information technology management issues in the Government Accountability Office said in his testimony. “Backlogs are still a major issue, especially at agencies like DHS (Department of Homeland Security) and Justice…”
According to Grassley, the backlogs are so bad that “some agencies are still working on requests from, would you believe it, 10 to 15 years ago.”
He added that, under the current guidelines, FOIA “requires a response in 20 days.”
These backlogs are one thing the FOIA Improvement Act, signed into law in June 2016 by President Barack Obama, tries to target through the creation of the National FOIA Portal, which seeks to streamline the process by making all the necessary forms for all of the agencies’ FOIA requests available in one place.
“(It) allows agencies to update and customize the information appearing on their own individual agency landing page,” Melanie Ann Pustay, the director of the Office of Information Policy in the Justice Department said. “And then, very importantly, the portal delivers a wealth of information to the public to help them determine whether they need to make a FOIA request in the first instance and then to assist them when they do.”
Sunshine Week provides government agencies as well as the public the opportunity to reassess how information is shared and provided.
However, critics say it does not prevent high-ranking politicians from keeping information secret or provide clear-cut guidelines on what is — or should be — public information.
“President Trump is closing the blinds, locking the doors and blocking the public’s access to information,” Sarbanes charged. “The level of secrecy by this administration and its Republican allies in Congress is unprecedented and deeply alarming. The American people deserve better.”
That is something the FOIA Improvement Act was designed to address by making more information public to begin with.
“The more information we can make available to the public on websites without the need to make a FOIA request, of course the better that is for everyone,” Pustay said.