Americans have no way to know what Donald Trump does all day

Reason to disbelieve.
Reason to disbelieve.
Image: REUTERS/Carlos Barria
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Donald Trump is spending most of his time in unscheduled “executive time,” watching television, reading newspapers, and making unlogged phone calls, according to a report based on a leaked copy of his daily agenda.

The president spent about 60% of his time in the months after the 2018 midterm elections in what the White House calls “executive time,” much of that in the mornings, Axios reports. His first public scheduled event is normally in late morning and he spends the hours beforehand in the executive residence, not the Oval Office. Trump spent just 15% of his working time in meetings, and less than 8% in public events, Axios reports. Previous presidents have not had “executive time” on their schedules.

Madeleine Westerhout, director of Oval Office operations, is among the officials who are defending Trump, tweeting that he had “hundreds of calls and meetings” every day that aren’t part of his public schedule.

Her defense raises more questions than it answers. If Trump is, in fact, meeting or calling “hundreds” of people every day, who are they? What is he discussing? We do know he likes to tweet early in his day.

There’s no way for anyone but Trump to know. He has dispensed with transparency measures put in place by previous presidents, ignored scheduling and organizational precedents, and shed staffers whose job it was to keep track of his movements. Here’s what has changed during his term:

  • Early in the Trump presidency, the White House reversed the Barack Obama-era practice of releasing White House visitor logs. The White House web page for “visitor access records” no longer exists.
  • Last year, the White House stopped releasing “readouts” of the president’s calls with foreign leaders. These “vital tools of public diplomacy in a democracy” allow Americans to know what sort of “diplomacy is being conducted on their behalf,” instead of relying on anonymous leaks, or from statements made by leaders in another country, Government Executive explained.
  • The White House has also stopped using stenographers on a regular basis to capture what the president says in public and behind closed doors, former staff say.
  • Trump reportedly seized interpreters’ notes after his closed-door meetings with Russian president Vladimir Putin, and there’s no official record of their conversation.
  • The White House has stopped holding regular press briefings for reporters to ask day-to-day questions about policy. The press office responds sporadically and unpredictably to questions.
  • The Trump White House fired much of the team responsible for maintaining presidential records. Before they were dismissed, some members said their job was made even more difficult because of Trump’s habit of tearing up official papers after he’s read them.
  • It had been normal protocol to make every work-related meeting and phone call part of a written schedule for federal government officials, but that’s not happening under Trump.

These omissions may put the Trump administration in violation of the US Presidential Records Act, several lawsuits allege. The act states the White House must retain all the information “created or received by the President, the President’s immediate staff, or a unit or individual of the Executive Office of the President whose function is to advise or assist the President” that relates to presidential duties. That includes all:

books, correspondence, memoranda, documents, papers, pamphlets, works of art, models, pictures, photographs, plats, maps, films, and motion pictures, including, but not limited to, audio and visual records, or other electronic or mechanical recordations, whether in analog, digital, or any other form.

That information is the property of the US government, not the president’s or his advisors’, and an administration can only delete records after getting written permission from the archivist of the United States.