Every recent presidential transition has set a new precedent in terms of transparency of operations.
The lack of details coming out of the Trump Tower and other hubs of the transition has led to an ever-growing list of unanswered questions about how the transition team is conducting its business. These are questions that President-elect Donald Trump should answer for the public — not only to make good on his pledge to “drain the swamp,” but also to show good faith to the taxpayers, who are footing the bulk of the bills for the transition.
A central question is this: What is the transition team’s ethics code?
For a long time, the transition team’s leaders deflected questions about whether it had an ethics code at all. A week after the election, when Vice President-elect Mike Pence took over the transition, newspapers reported that an ethics code was newly finalized and they published the purported document.
Later the same day, Politico reported on the existence of a brand new ethics code that apparently superseded the earlier one, although the paper did not publish the code itself.
A key component of an ethics code is how it treats lobbyists, whom Trump singled out in his swamp-draining pledge. The two ethics codes reported on by the press conflict on whether recently active lobbyists may participate on the transition team simply by cutting their ties to current clients.
It is also unclear how the policies handle quasi-lobbyists who do not officially register as lobbyists. Candidate Trump pledged to “close all the loopholes that former government officials use by labeling themselves consultants and advisers when we all know they are lobbyists.”
How is he managing that promise for the transition?
For its part, the transition team has not officially announced anything on its ethics policies. The Obama-Biden transition team, in contrast, published its ethics code within a week of the general election. A strong ethics code is foundational to any commitment to run a clean, unconflicted government. The public deserves to know the steps the Trump team has taken to ensure that the architects of the next administration aren’t designing it for their own benefit.
Trump also owes it to the public to announce these steps officially to demonstrate that he is accepting accountability for them.
The transition also has neglected to share the specific details of the nondisclosure agreement (NDA) team members reportedly have been required to sign. The mere existence of a nondisclosure agreements raises all sorts of troubling questions.
For instance, does the agreement preclude rank-and-file members of the team from revealing details of the agreement?
Do the terms of the agreement violate whistleblower protection laws?
Would the agreement be enforced in secret arbitration proceedings, as with agreements that Trump previously has required his employees to sign?
The public also deserves to know which outside experts and advocates team members have met with and what policy proposals outsiders have submitted. By this time in the Obama-Biden transition, the team was disclosing with whom it met and was posting policy documents submitted by outside groups on its website.
We have seen no indication that the Trump team intends to follow suit.
As Louis Brandeis famously wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Brandeis’s metaphor is particularly apt today, as the president-elect was elected on a promise to “drain the swamp.”
Even though it predates the inauguration, the transition process is one of the most influential periods in an entire presidential administration, as it sets the stage for staffing and policy. The transition is largely funded by us, the taxpayers, and so we should given an opportunity to monitor and evaluate its work.