Obama Spent Millions Fighting FOIL And It Will Probably Get Worse

Peter Macdiarmid - WPA Pool /Getty Images

Dan King Advocate, Young Voices
Font Size:

This is Sunshine Week, the week where we celebrate government transparency and our “right to know.” But over the last eight years the clouds have crept in, and they’re showing no sign of going anywhere.

Former President Barack Obama failed to deliver on his campaign promise of being the “most transparent administration” ever, and ran up a bill in doing so.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the Obama administration spent a record $36.2 million in its final year on legal costs related to refusals to turn over federal documents under the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). Not only is that fiscally absurd, it’s also a slap in the face to those who actually believed Obama would follow through on his transparency promises.

On top of running up the legal fees, the Obama administration also set a record for the number of denied FOIL requests. The administration also told journalists and citizens it couldn’t find the requested documents more times in 2016 than ever before.

Sadly, there’s little indication that  this will improve under President Donald Trump’s administration.

While Trump hasn’t discussed transparency much and has little presidential record to go on, it’s often the law-and-order candidates, like Trump, who are the most vehemently opposed to transparency measures. Richard Nixon comes to mind. Nixon established the special investigation unit known as the Plumbers, with the sole purpose of stopping leaks of White House information. In the wake of Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the “Pentagon Papers,” Nixon’s Justice Department demanded the New York Times stop reporting on the leaks.

Trump has proven to have a penchant for frivolous lawsuits over the course of his public life. An analysis by USA Today showed the business mogul turned president has been involved in 4,095 lawsuits on a variety of topics over three decades.

Of those lawsuits, 14 dealt with the media and defamation. While that is a small number relatively speaking, it has increased over time. In 2015 alone, Trump was involved in five different lawsuits against the media, according to USA Today. That’s the same media Trump will feel threatened by when they are using the Freedom of Information Law to try and obtain government records. Likely, Trump’s ego and disdain for the media will lead him to fight many of these cases in court, instead of just turning over government documents.

Two such lawsuits include Trump suing HBO comedian Bill Maher for making a joke that he was the love child of an orangutan, and Trump suing author Tim O’Brien, who argued in his book “Trump Nation,” that Trump was worth only $150 million.

According to the Associated Press, Trump also required employees at his private business to sign non-disclosure agreements, which may hint at his personal feeling on transparency.

There’s been instances where Trump battled media outlets over their coverage of his campaign and now his administration. On the campaign trail he removed credentials from The Daily Beast, Buzzfeed and the Washington Post. He also barred some mainstreams outlets from one of his press briefings after being elected, calling it a private press conference. Although news outlets he likes, such as Breitbart, were allowed in.

If the “most transparent administration” racked up all-time records for denied FOIL requests and amounts of money spent fighting FOIL requests, imagine what will happen under the administration of a thin-skinned man who regularly yells “fake news” at reporting he doesn’t like.

Dan King is an advocate for Young Voices and a journalist residing in New York’s Adirondacks. He writes about free speech and civil liberties and can be found on Twitter @Kinger_Editor.