30+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

How Transparent is President Trump? Audit Shows Three-Quarters of His Decisions Have Been Bad for Openness

2020 FOIA audit
Published: Mar 12, 2020

Edited by Lauren Harper and Claire Harvey

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Archive's Sunshine Week Audit Highlights Trump's Good, Bad, and Downright Perplexing Disclosure Decisions 

Interactive timeline (January 2017 - March 2020)

Washington, D.C. March 12, 2020 – President Trump has made three times as many pro-secrecy decisions as pro-transparency ones since taking office — this according to a National Security Archive Audit released today to mark the beginning of Sunshine Week. While the record is not entirely one-sided, the survey found that the President's anti-transparency decisions - including classifying coronavirus talks, hiding the White House visitor logs, and keeping his tax returns secret - significantly outnumber the good transparency decisions he's made, including following through with the Argentina declassification project and working for more transparent hospital and prescription drug prices.

The Archive audit team scoured White House press releases, news reports, and court cases to create an interactive chronology of Trump's good, bad, and occasionally perplexing transparency decisions since taking office. The results undercut the President's repeated claim that he is the most transparent president in history, but do provide some insights into areas where the President and his team have consistently promoted transparency. 

This is the Archive's 19th FOIA Audit. Modeled after the California Sunshine Survey and subsequent state "FOI Audits," the Archive's FOIA Audits use open-government laws to test whether or not agencies are obeying those same laws. Recommendations from previous Archive FOIA Audits have led directly to laws and executive orders which have: set explicit customer service guidelines, mandated FOIA backlog reduction, assigned individualized FOIA tracking numbers, forced agencies to report the average number of days needed to process requests, and revealed the (often embarrassing) ages of the oldest pending FOIA requests. The surveys include:

 

Timeline

2017

January

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Communications Shutdown 

Several prominent agencies – including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior – were reportedly ordered to scale back communications with the public, including restricted social media use and prohibiting employees from communicating with the press.Source: Sunlight Foundation

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Inspectors General Targeted

The Trump transition team informs Inspectors General “that they are being held over on a temporary basis” and should seek other employment. IGs traditionally enjoy open-ended appointments regardless of party.

Source: Washington Post

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RNC Emails Not Preserved

Administration officials including Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner, Sean Spicer and Steve Bannon reportedly used Republican National Committee email handles for government purposes – which is prohibited – and failed to forward them to government accounts for preservation.

Source: Newsweek

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No Trump Tax Returns

President Trump continues to withhold his tax returns.

Source: NPR

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WH Visitor Logs at Risk

On January 23 the National Security Archive filed a FOIA request to the Secret Service for the White House visitor logs. The Obama administration agreed in 2009 to post the logs 90 to 120 days after the visits took place, with several exceptions, and did so throughout the duration of Obama’s two terms; the Archive feared the Trump administration would discontinue the practice.

Source: National Security Archive

February

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Front Row Seats at Mar-a-Lago

President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat in the dining room at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, full of club members and diners, and watched video of a North Korean ballistic missile test, prompting former House Oversight Committee Chair, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, to ask the White House about its security protocols for handling sensitive information at Mar-a-Lago.

Source: Washington Post

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Trump Releases Controversial Nunes Memo

President Trump approved the release of a classified memo written by House Intelligence Committee Chair, Devin Nunes, alleging abuse of surveillance powers at the FBI and the Justice Department. The FBI opposed the release, and publicly stated it had “grave concerns” about the accuracy of the memo.

Source: USA Today

March

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Some Trump Tax Info Released

The White House released President Trump’s 1040 from 2005 after being alerted that MSNBC host Rachel Maddow had obtained a leaked version and would air it on her show. The release fell short of calls for Trump to make public his most recent tax returns.

Source: The Hill

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Privacy Board Left to Wither

FOIA-released emails show that the federal agency in charge of protecting Americans’ privacy and civil liberties – the Privacy and Civil Liberties and Oversight Board (PCLOB) – was down to one part-time member, and therefore unable to reach its statutory quorum and perform its oversight functions. PCLOB was not staffed at full-force by the end of the Obama administration, either.

Source: The Intercept

April

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Trump Hides White House Visitor Logs

The Trump White House announced it would no longer disclose the routine visitor logs maintained by the Secret Service and published online by the Obama administration since 2009, and claimed national security and privacy risks.

The Archive and its senior analyst Kate Doyle joined with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and CREW, the watchdog group that first sued Presidents George W. Bush and Obama for copies of the visitor logs, in a new Freedom of Information lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, parent agency of the Secret Service, to open the Trump logs – including at Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago.

Source: National Security Archive

May

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Trump Hotel Profits Not Tracked

NBC News reports that the Trump Organization is failing to track foreign government payments at Trump properties.

Source: NBC News

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Prescription Drug Transparency

President Trump addressed prescription drug and health care costs, targeting, among other things, lack of transparency in drug pricing. His administration develops a plan to update Medicare’s drug-pricing dashboard to ensure transparency.

Source: The White House

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Declassified Diplomacy with Argentina

The Trump administration continues to release U.S. government documents on human rights abuses in Argentina with a release of over 900 previously classified State Department records; it is the third tranche of records the U.S. government has released going back to a March 2016 commitment by President Barack Obama to open historical materials relating to Argentina’s earlier military dictatorship.

Source: National Security Archive

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Divulging Secrets to Russian Diplomats

President Trump shared highly classified information concerning a terrorist threat with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak about a terror threat. The Post reported current and former US officials were concerned the move “jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.”

Source: Washington Post

June

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Trump’s Partial Financial Disclosure

President Trump submits some financial disclosure information concerning his vast business holdings to the Office of Government Ethics.

Source – The Guardian

July

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Deleted Tweets and Encrypted Messaging

The National Security Archive, together with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, sued the President for violating the law both through deleting presidential statements made on Twitter and his staffers use of secret and encrypted messaging apps that prevent the proper preservation of federal records.

Source: Newsweek

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Blocked Twitter Users Sue Trump

President Trump and two aides is sued by a group of Twitter users that the President had “blocked” for criticizing him or his policies.

Source: New York Times

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Trump Reveals Covert Syria Program

In a tweet, President Trump confirms the existence of a covert CIA program to arm Syrian rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The admission prevents the CIA from issuing a Glomar denial in response to BuzzFeed News’ Jason Leopold’s FOIA request for information on the program.

Source: VOX

August

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Election Integrity Committee Hides Info

U.S. District Judge Colleen ­Kollar-Kotelly admonished President Trump’s Election Integrity Commission during a federal court hearing concerning the commission’s compliance with open government laws for not releasing all public documents before its mid-July meeting. The commission released only an agenda and proposed bylaws before the meeting, but provided commissioners with a 381-page “database” allegedly detailing 1,100 cases of voter fraud, as well as a list of possible discussion topics that should also have been published.

Judge ­Kollar-Kotelly said it was “incredible” that the DOJ didn’t believe it had to post “documents prepared by individual commissioners” for the meeting in advance, and ordered “the government to meet new transparency requirements” for its next meeting on September 12.

Source: Washington Post

September

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Trump Family’s Personal Email Use Continues

An American Oversight FOIA request shows the President daughter and Senior Advisor continued to use personal email for government business well into the Trump administration.

Source: Engadget

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Hospital Price Transparency

Trump administration finalizes a rule requiring hospitals to post a list of their standard charges online to "encourage price transparency" and improve "public accessibility."

Source: The Hill

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Open Government Partnership Commitments

The Trump administration formally introduces its draft framework for the Fourth United States National Action Plan for the Open Government Partnership.

Source: The Sunlight Foundation

October

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 No Mar-a-Lago Visitors Records

“There is no system for keeping track of Presidential visitors at Mar-a-Lago,” according to the government’s October 4, 2017, court filing in response to a National Security Archive Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit. The suit, Doyle v. DHS, brought together with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), seeks the Secret Service's White House visitor logs, along with Secret Service records of presidential visitors at other Trump properties.

Source: National Security Archive

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Some JFK Assassination Records Stay Secret

President Trump releases some, but not all, of the remaining JFK assassination records. The Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992 (JFK Act) requires that each assassination record be publicly disclosed in full by October 2017 – unless the President upholds an agency appeal and “certifies” that releasing a record would cause specific harm.

Source: Fortune

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Trump Appoints New Privacy Board Member

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent agency charged with ensuring that the government’s terrorism efforts don’t infringe on privacy and civil liberties, finally got new members.

Source: MeriTalk

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OSHA Press Releases Scrubbed

The Trump Administration discontinued the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's press release policy, which previously publicized serious safety and health violations.

Source: Bloomberg News

2018

January

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Trump Inaugural Fund Raises Questions

President Trump’s inauguration fund raised a record-setting $106.7 million, but a year later and there is still no accounting for the surplus.

Source: USA Today

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Who is Buying Trump Properties?

The Trump Organization sold $35 million in real estate in the first year of Trump’s presidency, but the vast majority of buyers are shrouded in secrecy, raising potential ethics concerns.

Source: USA Today

February

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Kushner’s WH Office Hidden from FOIA

The White House is sued by Democracy Forward and Food & Water Watch for hiding the records of the Executive Office set up by the Trump administration in March 2017 to reduce the size of the federal government. The Office of American Innovation, led by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, made news for a “fact-finding mission undertaken by the office in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria” that produced no known findings, and approved Elon Musk’s efforts to build a precursor to Musk’s proposed Hyperloop that would transport people between DC and New York in less than half an hour.

Source: Democracy Forward

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Regulations Report Buried

The White House quietly released its annual draft report of the costs and benefits of government regulations showing that the economic benefit of rules passed between 2007 and 2016 totals between $287 billion and $911 billion.

Source: The Hill

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WH Staff  Warned About Encrypted Messages

White House lawyers reminded “President Trump’s staff not to use encrypted messaging apps for official government business as the administration seeks to dismiss a lawsuit accusing it of violating federal records laws.” The lawsuit in question was brought by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the Archive, and argues that White House officials reported use of encrypted and disappearing messaging acts, like Confide, violates the Presidential Records Act.

Source: Washington Post

April

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Trump Delays JFK Assassination Files Release

President Trump delayed the release of the remaining JFK assassination records until October 2021. Trump justified the delay by saying that the intelligence community argued some of the information could harm “identifiable national security, law enforcement, and foreign affairs concerns.”

Source: Washington Post

May

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Trump Releases Annual Financial Disclosure

President Trump released his annual financial disclosure form, which showed, among other things, he did reimburse his former lawyer Michael Cohen for a payment Cohen made to adult film star Stormy Daniels.

Source: Forbes

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Trump Cancels Greenhouse Gas Research

The Trump administration shuttered NASA's Carbon Monitoring System, sharply curtailing efforts to assess greenhouse gas emissions.

Source: Science Magazine

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Union Transparency

President Trump signs Executive Order 13837 (Ensuring Transparency, Accountability, and Efficiency in Taxpayer-Funded Union Time Use) to “ensure that taxpayer-funded union time is used efficiently and authorized in amounts that are reasonable, necessary, and in the public interest”.

Source: The White House

June

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Trump Shreds Official Records (Literally)

News breaks that President Trump rips up his papers once he’s done with them, meaning that White House records management specialists charged with preserving federal records have to puzzle the documents together with scotch tape. Unable to disabuse the President of his habit of destroying documents, “Staffers had the fragments of paper collected from the Oval Office as well as the private residence and [sent] it over to records management across the street from the White House” for reassembling.

Source: Politico

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Ignoring Congressional Requests

The Trump administration instructs agencies to ignore Congressional information requests unless those requests come from Republican lawmakers.

Source: Politico

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Torture Report Returned to Congress

The Trump administration returned copies of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program to Congress. The pernicious move, which effectively hides the report from FOIA and public scrutiny, came after years of FOIA lawsuits to win access to the historically significant document and hold accountable those responsible for torture.

Source: New York Times

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IGs Still Undermined

The New York Times Editorial Board published a vigorous defense of the inspectors general of the federal government (independent officials who investigate misdeeds at their agencies) in the wake of the Trump administration’s continued undermining of these critically important positions – by either leaving the positions vacant or proposing drastic budget cuts that would cripple the offices. The Times notes, “nearly one-quarter of inspector general offices have either an acting director or no director at all, including the offices at the C.I.A., the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense and the Social Security Administration.”

Source: New York Times

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No More Foreign Leader Transcripts

The White House announced it will end a long-standing practice and will no longer publish summaries of the president’s phone calls with foreign leaders.

Source: Think Progress

July

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List of SCOTUS Nominees Released

President Trump releases a list of potential nominees for the Supreme Court.

Source: The White House

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Trump Hides Spying Report

The Trump administration continues to withhold the Privacy and Civil Liberties and Oversight Board’s surveillance report on what the government does with personal information collected through spying, despite calls from Senators and European Union member countries to release the report.

Source: The ACLU

September

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Selective Russian Election Interference Info

President Trump ordered the Justice Department to declassify information related to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election with the purported belief this will clear a cloud that has hung over his administration since Inauguration. The statement specified that the DOJ was to “immediately declassify portions of the secret court order to monitor former campaign adviser Carter Page, along with all interviews conducted as officials applied for that authority,” as well as to release unredacted text messages of certain FBI officials.

Source: Washington Post

October

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Drug Price Transparency

President Trump signs two bills - the Know the Lowest Price Act and the Patient Right to Know Drug Prices Act - to bring more transparency to drug prices.

Source: CNN

November

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Trump WON’T Sit for Mueller

Trump tells Fox News that he won’t sit for an interview with special counsel Robert Mueller.

Source: New York Times

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Climate Report Released (Very Quietly)

The Trump administration quietly released the 1,656-page "fourth national climate assessment." the report was posted on the national oceanic and atmospheric administration's website, but not on the EPA or commerce department websites, in contrast to the Obama administration.

Source: GovExec

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Removing Press Credentials

The White House suspended the press credentials for CNN correspondent Jim Acosta after a heated exchange. The dispute continued for two weeks and CNN filed a lawsuit over the suspension, compelling the administration to restore Acosta’s press badge.

Source: New York Times

2019

February 

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Trump Forces Staff to Sign NDA’s

News breaks that the Trump administration requires all White House staff, including interns, to sign nondisclosure agreements during orientation, under threats from White House counsel that violating the DNA could result in legal and financial consequences.

Source: The Daily Beast

March

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Trump Revokes Drone Reporting Rule

President Trump revokes a 2016 Obama Executive Order requiring US intelligence officials to publish statistics on the number of civilians killed by drone strikes outside of war zones.

Source: BBC

April

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WH Won’t Comply with Congressional Subpoenas

The Trump administration continues to defy congressional subpoenas, in this instance concerning former White House counsel Don McGahn.

Source: Roll Call

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Argentina Declassification

The Trump administration turned over a massive collection of intelligence records on human rights abuses in Argentina to the Argentine government. The cache totaled 47,000 pages of CIA, FBI, NSC, DOD, and State Department records, the largest government-to-government transfer of declassified documents. U.S. Archivist David Ferriero said that reviewers across 16 government agencies worked for a total of 32,000 hours to complete the task, which began during the Obama administration and was completed under the Trump administration and were able to release the documents 97% unredacted.

Source: National Security Archive

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Trump Sues to Block Financial Disclosures

Trump and his three oldest children sued Deutsche Bank AG and Capital One Financial Corp to prevent them from complying with congressional subpoenas.

Source: New York Times

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Trump Sues the Late Elijah Cummings

The President sued the late former House Oversight and Reform Committee chair, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, to block a subpoena for financial information about his businesses.

Source: The Baltimore Sun

May

neutral

AG Barr’s New Declassification Powers

President Trump signed a presidential memo that “effectively amends” Executive Order 13526 on classification of national security information to grant Attorney General William Barr the “authority of the Director of National Intelligence to declassify intelligence information concerning the 2016 election.” Steve Aftergood reported the change on his Secrecy News blog, and notes that while the presidential memorandum only applies to AG Barr and not his successors, “the move represents a functional demotion of the Director of National Intelligence and a partial transfer of his authority to the Attorney General.” No explanation was given for the change and it is unclear whether the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO), which is responsible for the government-wide security classification system, was consulted.

Source: Secrecy News

June

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Health Care Price Transparency

President Trump signs an Executive Order that requires hospitals to publish prices for services negotiated with health insurers for a wide range of services and requires the Department of Health and Human Services to craft a policy and undergo a rule-making process.

Source: NPR

August

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Advisory Panels Dismantled

The Trump administration moves to dismantle the JASON Defense Advisory Panel, which advises the U.S. government on defense science and technology matters. It is one of the many advisory panels the administration disbanded; others include a State Department panel dealing with nuclear nonproliferation, the Independent Security Advisory Board, which was suspended in 2018. Two Navy committees were also on the chopping block this February – the Naval Research Advisory Committee and the Secretary of the Navy Advisory Panel.

Source: Reuters

September

neutral

Can a Tweet be Classified?

President Trump tweets an image that appears to confirm the existence of a highly classified U.S. reconnaissance satellite in connection to a rocket explosion at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in Iran.

Source: NPR

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What Press Briefings?

The White House goes six months without a press briefing from the press secretary.

Source: ABC News

October

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Regulatory Guidance Transparency

The Trump administration issued an Executive Order requiring transparency in agency guidance documents; the order also requires agencies to publish the documents on their webpage in a searchable, indexed format.

Source: The White House

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Dog: Declassified

President Trump reveals the name (Conan) and image of the military dog involved in the raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria.

Source: Business Insider

November

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AG Barr Slams FOIA

The Trump administration’s AG slams FOIA at the Federalist Society’s 2019 National Lawyers Convention. Barr’s speech focused primarily on the “steady encroachment on Presidential authority by the other branches of government,” although his speech did not mention that the White House is also exempt from FOIA. Barr says:

“There is no FOIA for Congress or the Courts. Yet Congress has happily created a regime that allows the public to seek whatever documents it wants from the Executive Branch at the same time that individual congressional committees spend their days trying to publicize the Executive’s internal decisional process. That process cannot function properly if it is public, nor is it productive to have our government devoting enormous resources to squabbling about what becomes public and when, rather than doing the work of the people.”

Source: Justice Department

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WH Releases Zelensky Transcript (Kind of)

The White House, under pressure during the impeachment investigation, releases a rough transcript of President Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; the transcript is not verbatim and contains a number of curious ellipses that make it unclear if information is omitted or the speaker trailed off.

Source: CNBC

December

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Grant Transparency

President Trump sings H.R. 150, the “Grant Reporting Efficiency and Agreements Transparency Act of 2019 or the GREAT Act,” which mandates the establishment of a government-wide data standard for information reported by grant recipients.

Source: The White House

2020

January

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Trump Nixes Reporting Requirements

In a signing statement for the National Defense Authorization Act, the president indicated that he would not comply with the all of the congressional reporting and declassification provisions of the bill.

Source: Government Executive

February

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Making Phone Calls Private

Trump, after the impeachment scandal, suggests that he may end the practice of having administrative officials listen in on future calls with foreign heads of state.

Source: Vanity Fair

March

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Trump Classifies Coronavirus Talks

The White House orders federal health officials to take the unusual step of classifying all high-level coronavirus meetings – a move that excludes experts from meetings and could hamper the government’s response to the pandemic.

Source: Reuters