The administration's half-trillion-dollar transparency problem

As a rule, when Team Trump acts like it has something to hide, it's because Team Trump has something to hide.
Image: Steve Mnuchin
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks on regulatory issues associated with crypto currency in the briefing room at the White House on July 15, 2019.Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

In early April, about a week after Donald Trump signed the $2 trillion CARES Act into law, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC that the public should expect transparency. "I think that the American public deserves to know what's going on, given the amount of money that we'll be putting out," the cabinet secretary said. In a separate interview, Mnuchin endorsed the idea of "full transparency."

And yet, the Associated Press published this report late last week.

Building ramparts of secrecy around a $600 billion-plus coronavirus aid program for small businesses, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has moved from delay to denial in refusing outright to disclose the recipients of taxpayer-funded loans. Mnuchin told Congress at a hearing this week that the names of loan recipients and the amounts are "proprietary information." While he claimed the information is confidential, ethics advocates and some lawmakers see the move as an attempt to dodge accountability for how the money is spent.

Mnuchin isn't alone. Over the weekend, Larry Kudlow, director of the White House National Economic Council, told CNN's Jake Tapper he didn't much see the point in letting the public know which private-sector enterprises received taxpayer money through the Paycheck Protection Program. "As far as naming each and every company, I don't think that promise was ever made, and I don't think it's necessary," Kudlow argued, apparently unaware of Mnuchin's "full transparency" vow in April.

As a rule, when Team Trump acts like it has something to hide, it's because Team Trump has something to hide.

The Washington Post's Catherine Rampell made a compelling case this morning that with "a half-trillion dollars of our hard-earned cash" in question, taxpayers should be asking, "What are they hiding?"

[T]he administration has worked to sabotage virtually all of these accountability mechanisms. While paying lip service to "transparency," it has fired, demoted or otherwise kneecapped inspectors general, some of whom recently wrote to congressional leaders warning of systematic efforts to avoid scrutiny required by law. The watchdog Government Accountability Office also complained that the administration has refused to provide critical data on the bailout. Last week, the administration backtracked on its commitment to publicly disclose the beneficiaries of its $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) -- including, presumably, information about whether any of the "small businesses" helped happen to be President Trump's. This is unacceptable.

Some on Capitol Hill appear to agree. The New York Times reported overnight that House Democrats opened an investigation yesterday "into the distribution of more than $500 billion in small-business loans under a pandemic relief program, escalating a clash with the Trump administration as it resists oversight of trillions of dollars in coronavirus assistance funds."

How hard is the White House prepared to fight to keep this information under wraps? How will Team Trump defend its insistence on secrecy? Watch this space.