Donald Trump told reporters this week that he has been “the most transparent president” in the country’s history — “by far.” He did so as he explained why the White House is refusing to comply with subpoenas and other requests related to congressional oversight. So, is the current stance a departure from past openness? Recall that Trump is the first president in five decades to reject sharing his tax returns.
White House visitor logs have been kept under wraps. Those notes from his first meeting with Vladimir Putin? Trump seized them from his interpreter and ordered him not to disclose what he heard. Trump hardly has been more forthcoming about subsequent meetings with the Russian president. White House press briefings have all but come to a halt.
As William Barr, the attorney general, noted, the president did comply with document requests from Robert Mueller. At the same time, he ducked the chance to sit down for an interview with the special counsel. That defiance fit into the pattern of obstruction detailed in the Mueller report.
Those are a handful of the many instances that undermine the president’s claim. Now his administration has taken such opposition to new levels.
The Department of Justice refuses to permit an official to appear before a congressional committee to discuss the proposed and controversial citizenship question for the census. The president has taken the same stance regarding Donald McGahn, a former White House counsel, and others who spoke to the special counsel. He has moved to block the appearance of an official to discuss with lawmakers questions about the security clearance process at the White House.
The Treasury secretary has yet to comply with a congressional request to see the president’s tax return. The Environmental Protection Agency even has refused to share a safety study about a chemical in paints and plastics.
All of this amounts to a brazen assault on the concept of checks and balances, Congress with a duty and broad authority to oversee the operation of the executive branch. Brazen especially applies when the president has failed to share the scope and detail of his businesses, the country without sufficient information to determine whether he has conflicts of interest or he is compromised somehow. Oversight is crucial, too, when the president has walked away from consensus and tradition without appropriate explanation.
In defending “we’re fighting all the subpoenas,” the president reminds that Democrats in charge of the U.S. House “aren’t, like, impartial people.” Yet this is hardly the first time the opposition party has exerted oversight. It has been a regular occurrence. Republicans aggressively pressed the Obama White House. Hillary Clinton testified for 11 hours about the deaths of Americans in Benghazi.
Ordinarily, when an administration resists, the parties pursue a negotiated agreement, a course encouraged by the courts. That would be a logical outcome in this instance. Donald McGahn already has spoken at length with the special counsel. A president cannot pick and choose among public venues in a bid to avoid those likely to prove more embarrassing.
Then again, the president has demonstrated that he cares little for past precedent, or faithfulness to his oath. Which gets to why it is essential that the Democratic majority hold firm in its pursuit of legitimate areas of inquiry and oversight.
The president may see a political advantage in a fight, not to mention any delay. He may look to play the victim. Yet the country will be the injured party if the president gets away with avoiding congressional scrutiny. In turning over the House to Democrats, voters expressed support for checks and balances — and the transparency it promises.