A guide to public records and the Trump Presidential Transition

No, you still can’t FOIA Donald Trump’s tax returns, and other things to consider in the coming months

Written by Michael Morisy
Edited by JPat Brown

Previously, we took a look at what you could FOIA about Donald Trump and what you couldn’t. While at the time he had a relatively light public records trail, savvy requesters could still find ways to get a lot of material.

In fact, after that story ran, the New York Times had a great piece that used public records to raise serious questions about Donald Trump’s claimed income.

Now that Donald Trump is President Elect of the United States, a whole new world of FOIA possibilities begins to open up. But first, some bad news.

Now that Donald Trump is a federal employee, can we FOIA his tax returns from the IRS?

Yes, there are a lot of documents you can get regarding government employees through the Freedom of Information Act. But, barring a massive reinterpretation of existing laws, their federal tax returns are not one of those documents.

There are some smart FOIA requesters who hope for just such a reinterpretation: Jason Leopold, Ryan Shapiro, and Jeffrey Light have filed a FOIA suit for audits of Donald Trump’s tax returns. But the IRS is fighting that request hard, and I don’t expect them to prevail in getting the actual filings (they’re also filing requests and suits for a number of other Trump-related documents, which I’ll touch on in a minute).

Donald Trump becoming President Elect doesn’t really change things on that front - the only thing that got prior presidents to release their filings is, for better or worse, tradition, and it’s a tradition that Trump seems determined to flout.

FOIA and the Donald Trump Transition Team

Donald Trump Transition Website

Close readers will note that while GreatAgain.gov sure looks and feels like an official government website (right down to the closely-held .gov domain name), its about page notes the Office of the President Elect and of the Vice President Elect is actually a non-profit, under the aegis of Trump For America, Inc.

Being a 501(c)(4) non-profit, it’s not directly subject to the Freedom of Information Act or state public records laws, although you can get non-profit filings (we have a request for state Trump for America 501(c)(4) filings and related communications already out).

But while the Transition teams themselves aren’t subject to FOIA, they do coordinate with — and often receive funding from — the federal government.

For example, even Mitt Romney’s transition team (transition teams start gearing up well before the election) received almost $9 million in funding for his transition team, and was lent three floors in a federal building by the GSA, according to an article at the National Review:

The first staffers moved in at the beginning of September and were issued desks, government e-mails and phone numbers, security clearances, and access badges. Workers were assigned to one of more than 30 federal departments and agencies, each of which had its own office space. “It was impressively organized, and I’ve worked in three administrations,” one member of the transition team tells me. Each team, he says, had to identify the twelve most important people in a department or agency, prepare a list of candidates for the most important jobs, link Romney’s campaign promises to specific actions to take early in the administration, and come up with five recommendations for quick action in each office.

That kind of effort involves a lot of administrative paperwork, much of which would be FOIA-able, although details on the actual administrations plans and policies likely would not be.

Updated Trump transition procedures mean new look into government

Earlier this year, Congress passed legislation requiring the president set up transition councils, and the Agency Transition Directors Council has been meeting since early June to plan a smooth transition.

While personnel and planning that falls under the executive branch is still exempt under the Presidential Records Act, many of the materials would not be exempt. And as the New York Times reported (via NewsDiffs, as many details were omitted from later version of the article), a lot of documentation has been created

“Landing teams” now in place at each federal agency will begin working as early as Thursday with aides designated by Mr. Trump to hand over crucial operations, some of them using sensitive technology tools, such as secure websites, to make the information more easily digestible.

At the Department of Homeland Security, officials have loaded briefing materials onto tablets for the president-elect’s team in a searchable format. At the Department of Justice, officials created a cloud portal for the information.

“Our emphasis here has been putting together quality not quantity – we want to have targeted materials,” said Lee Lofthus, the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for administration. “The goal here is not to be putting together phone books that people have to file through.”

Concise materials generated to bring outsiders up to speed seems like ideal reading for those who would like to better understand how their government works, whether or not they will be living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Pre-Presidential Trump

And of course, there is still plenty of Trump FOIA material up for grabs from his business career before he entered politics. I wrote a guide covering some of the examples of what folks could and have been requesting.

Additionally, the work Shapiro, Leopold, and Light are doing is worth following closely (they have a GoFundMe if you’d to support it).

Beyond the Trump tax returns, they’re also requesting details on the FBI and Secret Service’s possible investigations into Trump, particularly after he made a veiled assassination reference on the campaign trail and called for Hillary’s emails to be hacked.

Their requests and lawsuits with the FBI also cover the Trump Organization, Trump Foundation, Trump University, and Trump Casino & Resorts. More updates are available on their project page.

And MuckRock users have already been busy: So far, there’s been 78 public requests filed that mention Trump, all of which you can browse now, follow to get updates, and use to inspire your own requests about America’s 45th president.


Image via Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under CC BY 3.0