December 20, 2016
While President-elect Donald Trump gears up to take over the highest office in the land, he and his transition team are determining who will staff his administration and what their policy priorities will be. As some of the most influential men and women in the world stream into Trump Tower to make their case for preferred positions and policies, it is increasingly important to know what is going on behind closed doors.
According to Republican National Committee communications director and chief strategist Sean Spicer, who is also a spokesman for the Trump transition team, the president-elect is already going above and beyond to create a transparent changeover. In an interview with CNN last Wednesday, the potential next White House press secretary pushed back against concerns about the role President-elect Trump’s adult children are playing in the transition, saying Trump has “been unbelievably transparent in the role his family will play in this.”
Spicer went so far as to declare that in President-elect Trump’s transition “the level of transparency exceeded any modern president in terms of who’s involved”:
SPICER: No, but, again, when is it enough? At some point, the level of transparency exceeded any modern president in terms of who’s involved —
BOLDUAN: No, that’s not true.
SPICER: Really? Who else? Have you ever seen —
BOLDUAN: There’s a level of transparency that relates to his businesses.
BOLDUAN: There are so many questions because we have not seen his tax returns. And I know we never will. I know we never will. Don’t claim he’s the most transparent president-elect of all time.
SPICER: I didn’t say that. I did not say that. I said this process. Again, you keep trying to — I said the process. Every person, we have a call every morning, talk about who he’s meeting with, they come down, we can see them go in and out. He talked to everyone that’s been involved in transition process. He listed everyone on his family. He talked about the role they would have.
But is the Trump transition the most transparent in modern history? It’s helpful to look at President-elect Trump’s immediate predecessor for a comparison.
By December 6, 2008, the incoming Obama administration had launched a website called Your Seat at the Table, where visitors could find a record of every meeting that involved three or more non-transition team members, read the non-classified materials that visiting groups provided to President Obama’s staff, and weigh in on a public comment forum. For example, see the list of financial services stakeholders who met with the Obama transition team on December 16, 2008. The website even won the begrudging praise of the libertarian CATO Institute, which called the site “a good start.”
Conversely, the Trump transition team has not created a similar website. While the website for the Trump transition team does list people working on the transition’s agency landing teams and allows people to apply to work in the Trump administration, it largely consists of press releases and biographical information about President-elect Trump’s nominees and appointees—it does not provide meeting records or materials. In addition, future transparency may be complicated by the fact that individuals joining the Trump transition team are required to sign non-disclosure agreements. As Politico explains, staffers cannot disclose information about “major portions of the transition work, like policy briefings, personnel material, donor info, fundraising goals, budgets, contracts, or any draft research papers.”
The Trump approach to the media, a frequent target of his Twitter musings, has raised additional questions about transparency. When the President-elect Trump visited President Obama on November 10, he refused to take his traveling press corps with him. The White House Correspondents Association instead arranged for the journalists covering him to join President Obama’s reporters. The lack of a protective pool led to a letter from the National Press Club, representing numerous press organizations, reminding President-elect Trump that “[t]he idea of a press pool that covers all of the president’s movements is one that dates back to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. Every president of both parties has treated this important tradition with respect.” The message did not appear to resonate. On November 15th, the president-elect left Trump Tower to go to a steak dinner with his family; the reporters covering him were alerted of his movements via Twitter.
In addition, no president-elect, dating back to at least President Carter in 1976, has waited longer to hold a press conference after being elected than President-elect Trump. While the president-elect did originally intend to have a press conference on December 15 to address his numerous conflicts of interest, the announcement was rescheduled to an as-yet unannounced date in January. By comparison, President Obama held his first conference on November 7, 2008, three days after he secured the presidency. While President George W. Bush was only declared the winner of the 2000 election on December 12, he held his first news conference just three days later, on December 15, 2000.
To the credit of the incoming Trump administration, Spicer did give examples of the PEOTUS’ efforts to provide some transparency. He noted that there is a morning press call about the president-elect’s activities and touted the camera in the lobby of Trump Tower as part of transition’s transparency, saying, “we have a camera, for goodness’ sake. Every single person who enters Trump Tower, you see them go up, come down, they talk to the press.” The feed, however, is hosted on C-SPAN’s website, not the Trump transition website.