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Trump White House struggles with questions about transparency

On everything from tax returns to visitor logs to golf outings, Donald Trump's White House is facing questions officials can't answer.
A picture of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hangs outside a house in West Des Moines
A picture of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump hangs outside a house in West Des Moines, Iowa, United States, January 15, 2016. REUTERS...
During Barack Obama's presidency, Donald Trump whined incessantly about transparency, calling the Democrat, among other things, "the least transparent president ever." Trump asked in 2012, "Why does Obama believe he shouldn't comply with record releases that his predecessors did of their own volition? Hiding something?"Soon after, the Republican added, "Obama thinks he can just laugh off the fact that he refuses to release his records to the American public. He can't."At the time, Trump's preoccupation with transparency had a rather specific focus: Trump, championing a racist conspiracy theory, called for the disclosure of "records" such as Obama's college transcripts.Now that Trump is himself the president, the Republican has adopted a dramatically different posture. The New York Times reported:

White House officials on Monday mustered a sweeping defense of their less-is-more public disclosure practices, arguing that releasing information on a wide array of topics would strike a blow against personal privacy and impede President Trump's ability to govern. [...]Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, facing a barrage of questions about the president's commitment to transparency, repeatedly shut down reporters' queries -- from the identity of Mr. Trump's weekend golf partners to his refusal to release his 2016 tax returns. Mr. Spicer said that greater public disclosure was unnecessary, intrusive or even harmful.

There are basically four elements to this: (1) Trump's secret tax returns; (2) the White House's now-secret visitor logs; (3) disclosure of Trump's excessive golf outings; and (4) White House readouts of the president's conversations with foreign leaders.Let's take these one at a time:On Trump's tax returns, the White House's rhetoric has been incoherent. Sean Spicer told reporters yesterday that Trump's insistence on secrecy "was something that he made very clear during the election cycle." That's plainly untrue. Before becoming a candidate, Trump vowed to release his returns, and during the campaign, the Republican repeatedly said he'd release the materials once the audit was complete.It remains possible that Trump simply lied about all of this -- there is no proof such an audit ever existed -- and he's refused to release old returns for years in which he's no longer under audit. What's more, there's nothing to stop Trump from releasing the returns anyway, even if the claimed audit exists, since it's entirely voluntary. He simply chooses secrecy for reasons he has not explained.Spicer added that this year's tax returns are also under audit, and that appears to be true, because since Watergate, "tax returns of the president and vice president are automatically audited, every year, no exceptions." But again, that's not a proper excuse for secrecy. The Obamas and Bidens were subject to this same IRS rule, but they nevertheless published their federal and state tax returns online for all the world to see.On the White House's visitor logs, the press secretary told reporters that Obama administration officials weren't as transparent on this front as they could've been -- Spicer three times yesterday called it a "faux attempt" at transparency -- which apparently is Team Trump's excuse for doing even less.In other words, as far as Spicer is concerned, Obama only opened the transparency door part-way, letting some sunlight in, so Trump has decided to slam it shut, preferring total darkness. This is supposed to be persuasive because ... well, I actually have no idea why anyone would find this persuasive.On Trump's many golf outings, the White House is often reluctant to confirm what the president is doing and with whom. Asked about this yesterday, Spicer said Trump is "entitled" to "private time."And as proof of the White House's commitment to transparency, the press secretary told reporters yesterday, "We generally provide readouts of [the president's] phone calls with foreign leaders, whether he's here or in Florida." We've seen some of these readouts, and they hardly serve as evidence of an open administration.There's no shortage of privacy experts who've argued that the Obama White House fell short of expectations on transparency, and many of those criticisms have merit. Given Trump's frequent criticisms of Obama's approach, some may have expected more disclosure from this administration than the last.Those expectations were clearly wrong. Obama was incredibly transparent compared to Trump. The fact that this president and his team can't come up with compelling explanations for their secrecy only reinforces fears about what it is they have to hide.