Under Trump, inconvenient data is being sidelined
By Juliet Eilperin
May 14 2017
The Trump administration has removed or tucked away a wide variety of information that until recently was provided to the public, limiting access, for instance, to disclosures about workplace violations, energy efficiency, and animal welfare abuses.
Some of the information relates to enforcement actions taken by federal agencies against companies and other employers. By lessening access, the administration is sheltering them from the kind of “naming and shaming” that federal officials previously used to influence company behavior, according to digital experts, activists and former Obama administration officials.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for instance, has dramatically scaled back on publicizing its fines against firms. And the Agriculture Department has taken off-line animal welfare enforcement records, including abuses in dog breeding operations and horse farms that alter the gait of racehorses through the controversial practice of “soring” their legs.
In other cases, the administration appears to be dimming the prior spotlight on the background and conduct of top officials. The administration no longer publishes online the ethics waivers granted to appointees who would otherwise be barred from joining the government because of recent lobbying activities. Nor is the White House releasing logs of its visitors, making it difficult for the public to keep track of who is stopping by to see the president’s inner circle.
The administration has also removed websites and other material supporting Obama-era policies that the White House no longer embraces. Gone, for instance, is a White House Web page that directed prospective donors to private groups that aid refugees fleeing Syria and other embattled nations.
Officials also removed websites run by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department that provided scientific information about climate change, eliminating access. for instance, to documents evaluating the danger that the desert ecology in the Southwest could face from future warming. (On Friday, protesting against the disappearance of the EPA website, the city of Chicago posted the site online as it had existed under the Obama administration.)
And within a week of President Trump’s inauguration, the White House retired the two-year-old Federal Supplier Greenhouse Gas Management Scorecard, which ranks firms with major federal contracts on their energy efficiency and policies to curb carbon output.
“The President has made a commitment that his Administration will absolutely follow the law and disclose any information it is required to disclose,” said White House spokeswoman Kelly Love in an email Sunday.
The White House takes its ethics and conflict of interest rules seriously,” Love added, “and requires all employees to work closely with ethics counsel to ensure compliance. Per the President’s Executive Order, violators will be held accountable by the Department of Justice.”
But Norman Eisen, who served as President Barack Obama’s special counsel for ethics and government reform, said the changes have undermined the public’s ability to hold the federal government accountable.
“The Trump administration seems determined to utilize a larger version of Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility to cover the entire administration,” said Eisen, now a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s governance studies program.
Across the vast breadth of the government, agencies have traditionally provided the public with massive data sets, which can be of great value to companies, researchers and advocacy groups, among others. Three months ago, there were 195,245 public data sets available on www.data.gov, according to Nathan Cortez, the associate dean of research at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law, who studies the handling of public data. This week it stood at just under 156,000.
Data experts say the decrease, at least in part, may reflect the consolidation of data sets or the culling of outdated ones, rather than a strategic move to keep information from the public. But the reduction was clearly a conscious decision.