US & Canada

Five ways Trump's Washington is more secretive

Sean spicer leaves briefing Image copyright Getty Images

President Donald Trump's Washington has become more secretive in recent months. Here are five ways that government officials are concealing their activities - and why it matters.

Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, insists the administration is transparent. "We have a tremendous respect for the First Amendment," he told reporters during a briefing on Tuesday. He explained that he and other officials have made a "significant" effort to give journalists access to information about the White House.

Reporters have had extraordinary access in one way: the president's freestyle tweets show his fluctuating moods - as well as his views on certain issues.

Yet in a larger sense many people in the briefing room - and outside of it - are sceptical about Spicer's claims. They think the administration has been stingy with information, and they are worried about its lack of transparency.

"Democracy - as Americans practise it - assumes a degree of transparency," said Arthur Brisbane, who's served as public editor for the New York Times.

The Trump administration has been considerably less transparent about its activities than those in the past, says Brisbane.

He told me that he's never seen anything like it - not in the decades he's been following Washington.

"We're seriously out of alignment with the past and present practices," he said.

Here are some of the ways that things have changed.

Healthcare bill

Lawmakers usually talk about healthcare issues in public. They hold hearings and discuss the matter openly. Not this time. In an effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a small number of Republicans have been meeting in secret about the bill.

Image copyright EPA

This makes it harder for the other lawmakers to evaluate the proposal, as Mike Lee, a Republican senator from Utah, explained to his constituents.

"I haven't seen the bill," he said on Facebook, adding: "If you're frustrated by the lack of transparency in this process, I share your frustration."

Trump tax returns

The president has released information about some of his business interests in a financial disclosure report. But so far he has not allowed members of the public to see his tax returns, which would provide a more detailed account.

He may not have anything to hide. But he's broken with a long-standing tradition of presidents sharing their tax returns with the public. This - at least for some - seems suspicious.

"There's a deep lack of trust in the majority of the electorate," said Matthew Dallek, author of The Right Moment: Ronald Reagan's First Victory, pointing out that the president's approval rating is relatively low - and that his decision not to release his tax returns makes things worse.

The president's decision to withhold information about his financial dealings, said Dallek, "has deepened people's cynicism".

Off-camera briefings

In some ways the White House briefings have become more open under the Trump administration. They're certainly livelier than they were in the past - with new voices in the mix.

Reporters from conservative media outlets such as Newsmax, Breitbart and One America News Network are called on regularly, and people from news organisations outside of Washington ask questions on Skype.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A skype call at a March White House briefing

Still reporters are worried - for several reasons. Traditionally a White House spokesman briefs journalists on a regular basis - daily and on camera. Trump administration officials are apparently thinking about cutting back on the briefings, holding only one a week.

In addition White House officials have reduced the number of on-camera briefings, telling reporters they're not allowed to film the proceedings on certain days. This makes it harder for ordinary citizens to know what's going on at the White House - and makes the administration seem less transparent. "It's disturbing to see these things trimmed away," said Brisbane.

White House visitor logs

Hundreds of thousands visit the White House each year, and some of them are meeting with the president and his aides. In the past officials have posted information about these visits, shedding light on who has access to the president and his advisers - and who may be influencing their views.

In April, however, Trump administration officials said they would end the practice, and public access to the visitors' logs was cut off. Michael Dubke, who was at the time serving as the White House communications director, said that the visitors' logs would be kept under wraps because of "grave national security risks and privacy concerns"of the visitors.

Leaders of watchdog groups said the public has a right to know who visits the White House, however, and they filed a freedom-of-information-act lawsuit, demanding that the records be released.

Trump's golf habits

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Marine One arrives as President Donald Trump departs for his New Jersey golf estate

President Trump used to criticise President Obama for spending too much time on the golf course. But Trump also likes to hit the fairway. His aides try to avoid questions about the time he spends on the links. Often, however, reporters discover through social media that he's been playing golf.

As it turns out, he's spent more time on the golf course than Obama did when he was president.

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