FOIAing the Trump Administration: defending against the charge of ‘fake news’

FOIAing the Trump Administration: defending against the charge of ‘fake news’

Plus, the turning promises into documents and exploring travel ban requests

Written by
Edited by JPat Brown

President Trump famously and frequently attempts to undermine trust in reporting on his administration with accusations of “fake news.” It’s a practice that has trickled down through his agencies, with cabinet members and public affairs officials attempting to portray unfavorable stories as fake or biased. The solution? File more FOIA requests!

You can use FOIA to hold the Trump administration accountable by filing a records request of your own with the agency, following MuckRock’s “FOIA the Trump Administration” project, and joining our Slack channel to share ideas and get help with your requests. If you have a Trump administration related FOIA you would like us to highlight, share it over email, Twitter, or Facebook and we may include them in the next roundup.

FOIA and ‘fake news’

The stakes are high for reporting on the Trump administration. As well sourced and meticulously reported as your story may be, an administration official or the president himself may attempt to exploit distrust of media to discredit it. Shoring up your story with documents obtained through FOIA is an effective means to render the “fake news” charge ineffective.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke attempted to portray POLITICO’s coverage of his helicopter usage as fake news, calling their reporting “total fabrications and a wild departure of reality.” But anyone can see in the documents themselves that Zinke spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on helicopters to attend political events.

Other agencies have used the fake news charge to preemptively deny information. When Eric Lipton of the The New York Times asked the EPA a series of questions for a story about chemical regulation, EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman refused. “No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece,” she wrote. “The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.” Lack of cooperation from the EPA didn’t hinder the story, which made extensive use of documents obtained through FOIA.

Tip: promises make documents

When Trump or officials in his administration make a promise, it’s likely to generate documents. A simple practice for coming up with ideas for FOIA request is to consider what government records a promise might create, then make a targeted request. The more specific the request, the quicker an agency will likely be able to fulfill it. Even if the request doesn’t yield documents, it may give you more clarity about what was promised, or tell you that the promise hasn’t been met.

MuckRock requests to explore: the travel ban

The Supreme Court last week allowed the third version of the Trump administration’s travel ban to go into effect while legal challenges against it continue to work their way through the court system. MuckRock users have filed many requests related to the travel ban, including many at the local level for information on police department responses to protests. You can explore completed and pending requests here.

Join our Slack channel to share ideas for FOIAing the Trump administration or to get help with your own requests.

Image by Shealah Craighead via White House Flickr