EDITORIAL: Donald Trump following in his predecessor’s footsteps on open records

President Donald Trump has made clear his intention of dismantling many of his predecessor’s accomplishments — regulatory and otherwise. But in one unfortunate aspect, he appears eager to build on Barack Obama’s legacy.

The Associated Press reported last week that the “federal government censored, withheld or said it couldn’t find records sought by citizens, journalists and others more often last year than at any point in the past decade.” Those who sought federal documents under the Freedom of Information Act received either censored files or nothing at all in 78 percent of the more than 823,000 requests.

Only about 20 percent of the time did the government turn over everything requested in unredacted form, the AP analysis found.

The intransigence is expensive for taxpayers. The wire service determined that the federal government spent $40.6 million last year fighting to keep certain information from its own citizens.

In ramping up the secrecy, the Trump administration is following in the footsteps of Mr. Obama.

Upon entering office, Mr. Obama vowed he would have the “most transparent” presidency in history. That turned out to be fake news — The Wall Street Journal noted in 2015 that the “Obama White House has turned stonewalling into an art form,” setting records for failing to process FOIA requests within the statutory time limit.

Other favorite tactics employed by bureaucrats under Mr. Obama included excessively redacting information, charging exorbitant fees to discourage such requests and abusing exceptions embedded in the law.

PBS reported in 2017 that during the final year of the Obama administration, the executive branch “for a second consecutive year … set a record for times federal employees told citizens, journalists and others that despite searching they couldn’t find a single page of files that were requested.” It also spent more than $36 million to argue in court that certain records should not be made public.

This is not a pattern that Donald Trump should seek to emulate.

In a recent report, the Trump White House blamed its unresponsiveness on a backlog, noting that the administration received a record number of information requests last year. “The administration also said it was directing federal agencies to improve the number of requests they process and do some more quickly,” the AP reported.

That’s a start. We’ll see if the changes are actually implemented. Mr. Trump and the 116 federal agencies and departments he oversees need to do better — much better.

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