Presidential Secrecy From Washington to Trump

By Michaela Morrow, Harvard Class of 2018

On Monday, February 6, the JFK Jr. Forum at the Institute of Politics was honored to welcome Ambassador Norman L. Eisen and Mary Graham for a conversation about presidential secrecy. Ambassador Eisen, a current fellow at Brookings and former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, served as Special Counsel and Special Assistant to the President for Ethics and Government Reform from 2009-2011. Mary Graham is Co-Director of the Transparency Policy Project at Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center and is the author of the forthcoming book Presidents' Secrets: The Use and Abuse of Power.

At the forum, moderator Archon Fung engaged Graham and Eisen in a lively conversation about the role of presidential secrecy both today and throughout U.S. history. Check out these key takeaways from the discussion:

1. Debates about presidential secrecy are as old as the founding fathers.

According to Eisen, the framers of the constitution shared many of his concerns about presidential transparency. He is deeply worried about President Trump's potential financial conflicts of interests, and noted the framers' inclusion of the foreign emoluments clause as an example of their desire to prevent such international entanglements. Despite these early attempts to check presidents, many have not governed transparently. Graham believes that presidents Washington, Ford, and Obama made the most effort to do so.

2. Transparency can aid productivity.

While some may argue that having too much transparency can lead to political gridlock, Eisen firmly believes that openness "gets things done." He told the story of working on the Dodd Frank bill and described the experience as "lawmaking in an atmosphere of extraordinary openness." Being transparent, Eisen argued, encouraged public buy-in, which has made the law more difficult to reverse.

3. New technology has complicated questions about secrecy.

For Graham, we are living at a "particularly dangerous moment for secrecy" because "we don't yet have agreed on limits for secrecy in the digital age." She continued, "There's nothing that can stop a president who wants to do harm behind closed doors...we have accountability but accountability is after the fact when the damage is already done." The rise of the internet and social media have raised questions about secrecy that have yet to be answered. Is Wikileaks a good way to hold politicians accountable? Graham feels that "there is a danger in data dumps" because the media cannot filter out sensitive material as they have in the past.

4. Checks and balances will push the new administration towards transparency.

Although Eisen and Graham both worry about the Trump administration's secrecy, they also see ways that the new president will be held accountable for his actions. Eisen believes that "it's going to take the judicial branch asserting its power" to limit Trump's international business dealings. Graham, on the other hand, doesn't think that "limits on secrecy have ever depended solely on congress and the courts...limiting secrecy has always depended on the courage of individuals...and there are more people watching [the president] than ever before." Whether through litigation or watchdogs, these ethics experts believe there is still hope for political transparency in the Trump era.

Thanks to Mary Graham and Ambassador Eisen for such an enlightening conversation. Check back soon for updates on future Forum events!