Where is Trump’s Cabinet? It’s anybody’s guess.
The Cabinet members carrying out President Donald Trump’s orders to shake up the federal government are doing so under an unusual layer of secrecy — often shielding their schedules from public view, keeping their travels under wraps and refusing to identify the people and groups they’re meeting.
A POLITICO review of the practices of 17 Cabinet heads found that at least seven routinely decline to release information on their planned schedules or travels — information that was more widely available during the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. Three other departments — Agriculture, Labor, Homeland Security and Education — provide the secretaries’ schedules only sporadically or with few details. The Treasury Department began releasing weekly schedules for Secretary Steven Mnuchin only in November.
Story Continued Below
In addition, at least seven Cabinet departments don’t release appointment calendars that would show, after the fact, who their leaders had met with, what they discussed and where they traveled — a potential violation of the Freedom of Information Act, which says agencies must make their records “promptly available to any person.” At least two departments — Education and the Environmental Protection Agency — have released some of those details after activist groups sued them.
This information clampdown is occurring with little oversight by Trump’s White House, which said only that agencies should follow the law when it comes to deciding what information to release.
“The White House does not issue guidance specifically addressing the daily schedules of Cabinet agency heads,” Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement. On the other hand, he added, “The White House expects federal agencies to comply with FOIA requests.”
Government watchdog groups and activists who closely follow the departments’ policies say the secrecy is more than just a Trumpian swipe at political enemies and a meddlesome news media: It’s an attempt, they say, to conceal the special access that some powerful interests have gotten in shaping policies that directly affect them.
“How officials spend their time is the best window into what their priorities are,” said Austin Evers, a former Obama State Department lawyer who heads the watchdog group American Oversight, which has sued for the calendars of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. “When public officials resist public disclosure of what they do, people should be skeptical of what they’re trying to hide.”
Criticisms that some agency heads are concealing meetings with businesses they’re supposed to regulate have been leveled especially often against Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who has made it his explicit mission to ease regulatory burdens on industries including oil, gas, coal, auto manufacturing and agriculture.
Pruitt meets frequently with leaders of these and other industries, based on the three months of detailed calendar records that American Oversight managed to pry out of EPA under a court order. But the agency makes it difficult to track his activities in real time — refusing to provide schedules or advisories of his upcoming meetings, confirm his attendance at specific events, or say what city he plans to be in on a given day.
Recent events that EPA refused to disclose ahead of time include a speech Pruitt delivered at a fuel marketers’ conference in Chicago co-sponsored by BP, whose U.S. oil and gas interests are governed by EPA regulations. Pruitt’s staff wouldn’t even say where he was headed that day, after POLITICO asked about a tip that he was seen sitting in first class on a Delta Air Lines flight.
Earlier this month, EPA wouldn’t disclose information about a dinner discussion that Pruitt was holding with a pro-business think tank in D.C. It gave no advance notice that he was traveling to Morocco on a trip that included a discussion of the country’s interesting in importing U.S. natural gas, a fuel source his agency helps regulate. EPA also wouldn’t confirm that Pruitt was scheduled to speak this month in Nashville before the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative policy organization — even though the printed program listed him as a lunchtime speaker. (ALEC later said Pruitt had canceled.)
Even after the fact, EPA resists releasing the detailed calendars that would make it easier for journalists and watchdogs to track how often Pruitt meets with business leaders before making decisions that benefit their bottom lines.
The barebones records released to date offer some clues, however: In May, for instance, Pruitt met with executives from an automotive company, Fitzgerald Truck Sales, to discuss an Obama-era air pollution rule for refurbished heavy trucks, according to the calendars obtained by American Oversight. Six months later, Pruitt agreed to weaken the rules, as the company had requested.
The partial meeting records released to date reveal similar meetings Pruitt has held with auto executives affected by his upcoming decision on whether to ease greenhouse gas requirements for cars and trucks; coal mining and power executives opposed to Obama-era regulations on their industries; and developers that received Pruitt’s approval to seek a permit for a proposed gold and mineral mine in Alaska, according to documents previously obtained and analyzed by The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Alarmed that many more such examples must exist, at least three watchdog and environmental groups have filed separate suits seeking detailed copies of Pruitt’s calendars. The Times and reporter Eric Lipton filed a similar suit against EPA this month, arguing in court documents that calendars are “often the only way the public has visibility into who provides Administrator Pruitt with input as he devises policy positions that affect all Americans.”
Pruitt “uses the word transparency a lot,” said Ann Weeks, legal director for the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group not involved in the suits. But she added, “To whom is the transparency being offered? Because it’s not the American people because we’re not able even to see who he’s talking to.”
EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman calls the criticism baseless, arguing that the agency is providing more information to the public than past administrations, “despite lawsuits from The New York Times for the sake of scoring political points and making headlines.” As evidence, she cites actions such as listing EPA’s upcoming regulatory actions online — as required by law — as well as a posting a public online calendar for Pruitt that often omits the name of the people he’s meeting with and the topic of discussion.
“The fact is that the current EPA is the most transparent EPA has been in years,” Bowman said.
Pruitt isn’t the only Cabinet member holding unpublicized meetings with businesses or groups who have a stake in his decisions.
While the Interior Department readily provides calendars after the fact for Secretary Ryan Zinke, it doesn’t publish his schedule ahead of time for events such as a September speech to the National Petroleum Council, whose members include companies that drill for oil and gas on federal land. (He made headlines that day by declaring that 30 percent of Interior employees aren’t “loyal” to his and Trump’s agenda.) It also issued no advance notice of political fundraisers he attended in Alaska, Montana and the Caribbean that are now under investigation by government watchdogs.
In August, after Zinke’s wife tweeted photos showing her and him relaxing along the Bosporus, an Interior spokesperson would not say when the secretary was returning or whether the trip to Turkey was a vacation.
Similarly, when then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price went to an Ohio drug manufacturer in April as part of a listening tour about the opioid epidemic, Price only tweeted about the trip once he had already visited. HHS’s press office also didn’t email national news organizations about the trip until two days later — after he published an op-ed in the Cincinnati Enquirer that mentioned it.
Since Sept. 29, when Price resigned following POLITICO’s revelation that he had charged taxpayers for at least $1 million in private and military flights, HHS has refused to publish schedules for acting Secretary Eric Hargan. Department employees responding to POLITICO’s request for Price’s calendars have said they’re swamped with FOIA requests they’re working to fulfill.
The departments of Commerce, Energy, Transportation and Veterans Affairs and the office of U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer also do not release advance schedules for their leaders.
“These are top public officials who work for the U.S. citizens, and they have a right to know who they’re meeting with and what they’re doing,” said Sean Moulton, the open government program manager at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.
Several of the Trump agencies’ policies on releasing schedules and calendars are notably more restrictive than either the Obama or George W. Bush administrations — though they, too, faced criticism for lack of transparency.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney won a court battle to avoid having to disclose details about his energy task force’s meetings with industry executives, rejecting a challenge by the Sierra Club and the conservative group Judicial Watch. Under Obama, The Associated Press sued the State Department for copies of former Secretary Hillary Clinton’s calendars. The department said at the time that it was coping with a load of records requests but “does its best to meet its FOIA responsibilities.”
More than 40 journalism and watchdog organizations also objected in 2015 to what they called a growing array of “constraints on information in the federal government” under Obama, including agencies that prohibited rank-and-file staff from talking to reporters.
Hiding information ultimately harms the agencies themselves, said Christine Todd Whitman, who led EPA during Bush’s first term and said she posted her schedule for the entire EPA staff to see and made reporters aware when she was traveling.
“It all leads to an atmosphere of distrust, even if you’re doing absolutely nothing wrong,” Whitman said.
She added that she is wary of Pruitt’s secrecy and has been “startled” by his frequent meetings with industry. “I worry about meeting with people who might have enforcement action coming before the agency, and, on the flip-side, seeming at this point to be locking out the environmentalists, because you’ve got to hear from both sides,” she said.
Under Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s staff emailed reporters a schedule of his upcoming week of activities on Fridays. DeVos, in contrast, provides a much sparser public schedule that often omits meaningful details about the vast majority of her meetings.
The Department of Homeland Security also released weekly alerts during the Bush and Obama eras for the news media about its secretary’s events, even if it wasn’t always complete. Under Trump, DHS has yet to issue such schedules on a regular basis, although its staff will confirm information about specific events.