Transparency carries a high cost.

By Kent Grayson
July 20, 2017

As scrutiny intensifies about the Trump administration’s possible ties to Russia, the obvious answer would be for the White House to disclose completely all pertinent information—the kind of radical transparency that might end the uncertainty and help build trust. But in today’s political environment, such transparency carries a heavy cost for any politician, regardless of party affiliation or background.

Instead of building trust, complete transparency can leave even the most ethical politicians exposed to the negative implications of revealing information that can be turned into ammunition for partisans on the other side. For Trump in particular, complete transparency could backfire by amplifying suspicion and further escalating calls for his impeachment on allegations of obstructing justice, accepting gifts from foreign powers, or treason.

Among the latest developments in the Russia story is the Senate Judiciary Committee’s intention to call Donald Trump Jr. and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to testify about their meetings with the Russians during the campaign. Trump Jr.’s attendance of the meeting and his “massaging” of the details about what was discussed have amped up suspicions around possible election interference.

This led The Wall Street Journal editorial board, referencing investigations by special counsel Robert Mueller and the House and Senate intelligence committees, to ask the Trump administration to pursue a policy of “radical transparency.” That logic argues for a policy of disclosing every document and email to the House and Senate committees, to the press, and to the public.

But being transparent is not as simple as it seems. Nobody is perfect, so any real transparency effort will inevitably expose both the good and the bad. A person or organization will be transparent only if they trust that those gaining access to information will not use it unfairly against them. This is why, in human relationships, we’re “radically transparent” only with those we trust and have our best interests at heart. With transparency comes the expectation of understanding and forgiveness from the other person.

It is naïve to think that, in today’s partisan climate, any politician can reasonably expect that. Even if a politician has nothing major to hide, a small incident in one’s past can be amplified or framed negatively by opponents and the media. The more heartfelt a politician’s apology for legitimate wrongdoing, the more likely a clip of the apology will appear in an opponent’s attack ad. The potential cost of this amplification is often significantly greater than any potential benefits from transparency—especially when there is something major to hide.

By no means is this to imply that politicians shouldn’t be truthful or that it serves the public good to lie, cover up, or distort information. But at the risk of sounding cynical, we must accept the political reality that transparency carries a high cost that precludes most politicians from doing much more than managing the truth with “spin” that looks at certain facts through a favorable lens, or presenting apologies in a perfunctory or formulaic way. It’s why downplaying or hiding the negative and presenting a benign or favorable version of events is endemic to politics, whether it’s Hillary Clinton talking about her private email server, George W. Bush reflecting on his decision to invade Iraq, or Bill Clinton referring to “that woman.”

If the past few months are prologue for the future, we’re not likely to see any radical transparency out of the Trump administration. As the investigation continues into Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russians, which reportedly was also attended by Manafort and Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, we are likely to see more managing of the details rather than full disclosure.

 

Our political system must therefore use “reluctant transparency”—the transparency that voters enjoy thanks to a free press, which often forces a politician to reveal the truth in an environment in which even the most rational politicians build walls against transparency. The Wall Street Journal, in its editorial, did not suggest that the Trump administration is morally obligated to be radically transparent. Instead, it argued that “everything that is potentially damaging to the Trumps will come out, one way or another.”

Now the Trump administration—like all administrations before—needs to weigh the cost of transparency against the benefits. My bet is that the result of that calculation is unlikely to lead to more windows in the White House.

Kent Grayson is a professor at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and faculty director of The Trust Project.

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