As president, Trump sings a different tune on ‘transparency’

January 31, 2017
Photo: Michael Vadon via Flickr

It’s easy to forget that our 45th president—who calls journalists “scum,” refuses to release his tax returns or fully disclose his business ties, and calls for media “blackouts” at executive agencies—was recently one of America’s loudest government transparency advocates.

During the height of his “birther” zeal, Donald Trump went on a prolonged campaign in favor of open government. He tweeted about transparency. He went on national TV to talk about transparency. He wrote to The New York Times explaining his passion for transparency. At one point, he even pledged to donate millions of dollars if President Obama released various personal documents to prove his US citizenship.

The contrast between President Trump’s past words and recent behavior may not be surprising, but it is staggering—and important. It is perhaps his greatest feat of hypocrisy.

The transparency talk started as early as March of 2011, when longtime Trump attorney Michael Cohen defended Trump’s requests for Obama’s birth certificate and said, “What [Trump] is is a person who demands transparency, which is what the [President Obama’s] platform was all about when he decided to run.” Cohen voiced similar concerns in a separate interview with ABC that same week.

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Obama released his long-form birth certificate a few months later, but Trump wasn’t satisfied. He continued to seek additional documents and info from the president, and cited transparency as his rationale. On June 6, 2012, he tweeted:

The next month, he tweeted:

And this:

As the 2012 presidential election drew closer, Trump released a video in which he promised to donate $5 million to charity if Obama released his college applications, college transcript, and passport application. In the video, Trump said:

President Obama is the least-transparent president in the history of this country. There’s never been anything like it. We know very little about our president….If he releases these records it will end the question[s], and indeed the anger, of many Americans. They’ll know something about their president. Their president will become transparent like other presidents.

To promote this new phase of his “birther” push, Trump continued to tweet about transparency.


He also phoned in to Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News show, where he repeated the assertion that Obama was “probably the least-transparent president in the history of the country.” The same week, he appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman. The visit—which was covered by the Hollywood Reporter and E! online—included this remarkable exchange:

Letterman: Why do we want to see President Obama’s college records?

Trump: Transparency. Does that makes sense to anybody? [Crowd cheers] Transparency.

Letterman: What does that mean, “transparency”?

Trump: It means there are so many hidden things that we just don’t know about our president.

Letterman: What are they? What [is] the list of hidden things?

Trump: Well, I don’t know. I can tell you this: George Bush released his records. They weren’t pretty.

Letterman: I think they were leaked. Those records were leaked. He didn’t release them.

Trump: Let’s leak Obama’s records.

A full video of that Late Show visit, uploaded to YouTube by an enthusiastic birther supporter, is here.

Naturally, Trump followed it with more tweets:


Trump’s “birther” campaign has been prominently criticized for its racial overtones. But now that the former Apprentice star has been sworn in as commander in chief, it’s also worth remembering what he said the campaign was really about: government transparency, a simple good-government measure about which, in theory, all Americans can agree.

And so the next time Trump chooses a “blackout” over sunlight, show him his tweets from 2012. The next time Michael Cohen defends presidential non-transparency, read him to his own comments about President Obama. The next time Kellyanne Conway says “people don’t care” about Trump’s taxes, refer her to the video Trump released on November 1, 2012, after President Obama didn’t produce his college transcript and passport application by Trump’s arbitrary deadline.

In the video—accessible via the Internet Archive with its original title, “Donald Trump’s Response To President Obama’s Lack Of Transparency”—the future president said, “All the president had to do is give simple documentation—simple paper, a few pages—and a charity would have gotten five million [dollars].” Lamenting the “total lack of transparency” from the executive branch, he concluded by saying, “This is a very, very sad day for the United States of America.”

Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. He sued the Drug Enforcement Administration under the FOIA, with help from the Rhode Island ACLU and two pro-bono attorneys, Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell. Follow him on Twitter: @phileil.