By Philip Rucker and Ed O’Keefe,
The Senate bill to scale back the health-care law known as Obamacare is being written in secret by a single senator, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and a clutch of his senior aides.
Officials at numerous agencies of the Trump administration have stonewalled friendly Republicans in Congress — not to mention Democrats — by declining to share internal documents on sensitive matters or refusing to answer questions.
President Trump, meanwhile, is still forbidding the release of his tax returns, his aides have stopped releasing logs of visitors to the White House and his media aides have started banning cameras at otherwise routine news briefings, as happened Monday.
Trump even refuses to acknowledge to the public that he plays golf during his frequent weekend visits to his private golf courses.
More and more in the Trump era, business in Washington is happening behind closed doors. The federal government’s leaders are hiding from public scrutiny — and their penchant for secrecy represents a stark departure from the campaign promises of Trump and his fellow Republicans to usher in newfound transparency.
“I was very frustrated the Obama administration held things so close to the vest . . . but I quite frankly haven’t seen any change with the Trump administration. In some ways I find it worse,” said outgoing Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who chaired the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform before announcing his retirement this spring.
In an interview Monday, Chaffetz ticked through several controversies, including the transfer of whistleblowers at the Transportation Security Administration, about which he said Trump administration officials have declined to provide key documents to his committee.
“I see a bureaucracy that doesn’t want documents and the truth out the door . . . and just flipping the middle finger at Congress,” Chaffetz said.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats are furious with federal agencies and White House offices that have not answered their requests for information on a wide range of subjects — from the role of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, to specific policy changes being considered by the Environmental Protection Agency, the State Department and other agencies.
By early June, House and Senate Democratic aides had compiled lists of more than 400 written requests that they said had been ignored by the White House or federal agencies.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) described “an overall pattern of fear of any level of transparency.”
“If they can’t control the message or have it come directly from the president via his Twitter account, I think they’re very fearful of any level of sharing basic facts and how they come to their conclusions and decisions what policy should be,” Heinrich said.
Peter Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center who worked in George W. Bush’s White House, said, “Secrecy is a human impulse.” He said government officials often assume that public accountability will lead to disruption, but argued that hiding from scrutiny can have even graver political consequences.
“There’s a tremendous temptation to conduct business in the shadows and that so often is a prescription for problems, even for disaster,” Wehner said.
White House officials strongly rejected the notion that they have been overly evasive during Trump’s first six months in office.
“I disagree, at least from a White House perspective, that things are happening in secrecy,” said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the principal deputy White House press secretary. She said reporters walk in and out of her office freely asking questions, noting that a reporter from The Washington Post was “the eighth one in the last 10 minutes” to visit her on Monday afternoon.
“We’ve advocated for transparency,” Sanders added. “One thing to point to is the obstruction by Democrats. There are over 100 nominees for positions in the departments that haven’t been approved, and without a full staff it makes it harder for agencies to communicate and respond to everything they’ve received.”
Still, lawmakers from both parties have been angered by a Justice Department opinion issued in May that instructed agencies not to comply with requests for information from most members of Congress, including Democrats. The May 1 opinion by the Office of Legal Counsel said that individual lawmakers could not make requests of the executive branch unless they are committee chairmen or participating in a request by a full committee or subcommittee.
“This is nonsense,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote in seven-page letter excoriating the opinion. He said that the OLC demonstrated a “shocking lack of professionalism and objectivity.”
Frustrations with the ongoing Republican-led health-care debate have also spilled out into the open. The bill is being written largely by McConnell (Ky.) and his senior aides, with limited input from a working group of about a dozen Republican senators. Their work has largely been kept secret from rank-and-file Republicans in the Senate, as well as all Democrats.
During a Senate Finance Committee hearing this month with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) asked her Republican colleagues when they would be holding open hearings on health-care reform.
“We have no idea what’s being proposed,” McCaskill said. “There’s a group of guys in a back room somewhere that are making these decisions.”
Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said there should be “real, robust debate” in the Senate once the bill is drafted: “I do believe sunshine is a good disinfectant and that transparency would be helpful in this process that the Senate is going to employ.”
McConnell has defended his conference’s closed-door debate on health care, telling reporters last week that “we’ve been dealing with this issue for seven years. It’s not a new thing . . . Nobody’s hiding the ball here.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer would not say whether Trump is comfortable with the secrecy of McConnell’s process. Asked Monday whether the president or members of his team had seen the bill’s text, Spicer said, “I don’t know,” although he said the White House legislative affairs team has been in “constant communication” with senators.
Spicer made his comments at a news briefing deemed an “off-camera gaggle,” meaning no video or audio footage was allowed to be broadcast. The White House has dictated such rules for briefings more and more in recent weeks, inspiring fierce resistance from some journalists.
“It just feels like we’re sort of slowly but surely being dragged into what is a new normal in this country where the president of the United States is allowed to insulate himself from answering hard questions,” Jim Acosta, a senior White House correspondent at CNN, said on the air following Monday’s gaggle.
The rules are in keeping with other steps taken by the Trump White House to limit transparency. The Obama administration regularly released logs of visitors to the White House complex, but the Trump administration ended that policy.
“I think there’s always been a tendency in politics to be as secretive as possible, but this administration has taken it to extremes the likes of which I have never seen,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist.
Ed Rogers, a Washington lobbyist and former aide in Ronald Reagan’s White House, defended the decisions by the Trump administration and GOP congressional leaders to conduct business in private.
“It makes it harder to govern if you can’t do things in quiet increments until you’re really ready to talk about a policy position,” Rogers said.
Still, congressional hearings this month grew testy as lawmakers sparred with Trump administration officials. At a June 7 Senate hearing, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and three other top intelligence officials refused to answer questions about their conversations with Trump about fired FBI director James B. Comey.
Heinrich told Coats, “your unwillingness to answer a very basic question speaks volumes.”
“It’s just — it’s not a matter of unwillingness, senator,” Coats said. “It’s a matter of . . .”
Heinrich cut off Coats: “It is a matter of unwillingness.”
“It’s a matter of how I share it and whom I share it to,” Coats responded.
“So,” Heinrich asked, “you don’t think the American people deserve to know the answer to that question?”
Coats declined to give an answer.
Ashley Parker contributed to this report.