The See-Through Presidency

What “transparency” means to the Trump administration.

White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner
Jared Kushner departs following his appearance before a closed session of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Monday.

Jim Bourg/Reuters

What does transparency mean to the president and his entourage? The word has been getting a workout lately, most recently in Jared Kushner’s statement to the Senate and House intelligence committees on his role in the alleged Kremlin–Trump rendezvous. “I did not collude, nor know of anyone else in the campaign who colluded, with any foreign government,” Kushner said. “I have not relied on Russian funds to finance my business activities in the private sector. I have tried to be fully transparent with regard to the filing of the SF-86 [security clearance] form, above and beyond what is required.”

Presidential scion Donald Trump Jr. invoked the term as well right before releasing the emails that exposed the true nature of his meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. The younger Trump had maintained, in a March interview with the New York Times, that he had not conferred with any foreign agents about the campaign; these emails revealed that he’d taken a meeting with Veselnitskaya upon being told she might have compromising information on Hillary Clinton. Alerted to the fact that details about the June 9, 2016 skull session were hours away from hitting the press, Don Jr. tweeted screenshots of his correspondence with publicist Rob Goldstone along with a statement affirming his desire “to be totally transparent.”

Shortly after that shining example of spontaneous disclosure, the president himself tweeted that his son was “open, transparent, and innocent”—the victim of a “witch hunt.” In a nontelevised message (hmm) read by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, POTUS also “applaud[ed]” Don Jr’s “transparency,” calling him a “high-quality person.”

Even Trump’s freshly minted communications guru, Anthony Scaramucci, has fascinating notions about the virtues of absolute divulgence. “Full transparency,” he declared on Twitter. “I’m deleting old tweets. Past views evolved & shouldn’t be a distraction.”

Transparency: the physical property of allowing the transmission of light through a material. Or, transparency: being totally upfront about your plans to destroy all records of everything you’ve said in public. How about: Transparency—it’s not just for jellyfish and revenants. Make America See-Through Again.

The press latched onto Scaramucci’s use of the word in particular, noting its “hilariously oxymoronic” promise. That paradox gets to the nub of this administration’s fraught relationship with ventilation and occlusion. When the Trumpists are transparent, they are selectively and self-servingly so.

Perhaps translucent is a better descriptor. Like the best liars, Trump and his team pair gratuitous revelations with strategic elisions. They plant real toads in imaginary gardens. They obfuscate, then congratulate themselves on their honesty the moment they stop committing sins of omission.

This is transparency as last resort, a performance of having nothing to hide that begins as soon someone else pulls the curtain back: Behold the evidence, voluntarily proffered, that my previous statements were full of lies! Don Jr. was not so limpid in March when he asserted, “I’m sure I did [meet with people that were Russian]. But none that were set up … and certainly none that I was representing the campaign in any way, shape or form.” Likewise, it’s hard to imagine Kushner unwinding the saga of his prematurely submitted SF-86 form absent a congressional investigation into why he hadn’t told anyone about his Moscow contacts.

Yet the story of the Trump presidency isn’t just one of glass figurines with their pants on fire. The White House remains secretive about some things, such as Trump’s tax returns and transcripts of diplomatic meetings. It refuses to release logs of visitors to the White House. It won’t say how many hours Trump has spent on the golf course. On the other hand, the president has been remarkably candid about whether his travel order was designed to ban Muslims (it was) and why former FBI Director James Comey was ultimately fired (because he wouldn’t drop the Flynn inquiry). Trump makes disarming public admissions about his lack of expertise: He doesn’t pretend he knew much about China or interrogation techniques or American history before taking office. This is the commander in chief who blithely confessed to being blindsided by the complications of health care reform and the entrenched divisions of the Middle East. Our country’s most prominent id rarely dissembles what he feels or believes.

Perhaps Trump and his minions lack the self-awareness to disguise or modulate their impulses—in this sense, they are the kind of transparent people that Tony Kornheiser memorably euphemized as “glass bowls.” Yet Freud, following Nietzsche, argued that real transparency is impossible for human beings: They are too much creatures of subconscious urges, flickering desires and fears. The president, Don Jr., Kushner, and Scaramucci are crystal clear in their motivations and in their shamelessness. At the same time, they want to keep their specific actions cloaked in privacy. Lots of people err and try to cover their tracks. It is consistent with this group’s contempt for reality that they would rewrite “getting caught red-handed” as “being transparent.” The first reflex is to conceal the wrongdoing. When that fails, you unveil it with a flourish and pretend there’s absolutely nothing to see.