Inside the mad dash to dig through the finances of 180 White House staffers

April 4, 2017

Some called it a Friday night news dump, but it was more like a frustrating trickle. One by one, the White House began slowly releasing financial disclosure reports Friday evening for about 180 of its top staffers, including Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner and Sean Spicer.

The reports, which show how much money President Trump’s top aides have earned and what assets and investments they have, were not easily accessible to reporters or the public.

Instead of posting the documents online, the White House required users to fill out an online form, make separate requests for each staffer’s records and wait to get emailed responses. Adding to the difficulty, the online form did not provide names of which staffers had filed financial disclosures. (For the record, White House employees making more than $161,755 must file them).

ProPublica Deputy Managing Editor Eric Umansky tweeted his frustration, calling it “needless obfuscation” and saying the experience “was like playing transparency Bingo.”

He was not alone.

Reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press and other national outlets scrambled to request all 180 records, read through them, determine what was newsworthy and post them online so the public could also access them.

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I watched the frenzy play out on Twitter Friday evening and was struck by some of the clever ways journalists and news organizations tackled the problem while on deadline.

At ProPublica, Senior Editor Tracy Weber took a divide-and-conquer approach and asked The New York Times and the AP to partner with her team to request and post the records as fast as possible. Within minutes, the news organizations were working together.

The Washington Post took a different, more technologically savvy approach. Instead of manually filling out the online form 180 times and completing all the required fields (requester’s name, email address, physical address, occupation, etc.), Database Editor Steven Rich wrote a script to automatically request all the records. He even posted his code on GitHub so others could replicate his efforts.

As of Sunday evening, The Washington Post had received only half of the 180 financial disclosure records they had requested.

The drizzle of a document dump was not only taking hours of reporters’ time, it was also taking time for White House staff, who were emailing the reports out, one by one, “as quickly as possible.”

As I watched the flurry of activity on Twitter Friday night, I wondered if this was The White House’s new approach to handling financial disclosure documents or if it had always been done this way.

I sent out a plea on Twitter, asking if anyone knew how previous administrations handled this. I copied Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, to see if he knew the history. He quickly responded and said the Obama White House used a similar form to release the records.

The White House alluded to that being the standard practice in a press briefing for reporters on Friday. I read through the briefing and found that reporters did question officials about the clunky process, but nothing was changed. Below is part of their back-and-forth. You’ll notice the White House staffers are not named. That’s because the briefing was done on background.

Reporter: So you have to make 180 requests?

Senior administration official: Yeah, and that’s required by the form in terms of —

Reporter: But do you have to make 180 requests for 180 names, but you’re not going to give us the names? We could sit here and go look them up, but can you not provide that?

Senior administration official: I don’t know that I can. Certainly I don’t know that I have that list.

Senior administration official: No, we’re not — we’re following the instructions and the guidelines, and following along the way the Obama administration —

Senior administration official: No different than what they did.

Senior administration official: — what the Obama administration did. We’re doing it exactly the same way, exactly the same manner.

Reporter: Okay, that’s not — you do lots of things differently than the Obama administration (inaudible) about every day. So don’t rely on the Obama administration.

Senior administration official: Actually, no, no, you’re absolutely right. You know what we did differently? We’re actually ahead of schedule. So the Obama administration released these items on April 3rd, and we’re now March 31st. So we are different.

Surely, there must be a better way. I emailed the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, which handles the reports, to ask if the records can be posted online in the future. I’m also trying to get in touch with the White House to ask them to improve the process. We’ll see if I get anywhere.

In the meantime, consider this: if reporters at some of the nation’s top news organizations had this much trouble getting the documents, how would the general public fair? I decided to request some of the records myself to find out. On Friday, I asked for Steve Bannon’s disclosure form, which reporters were able to get late Friday. I finally got it as well … two days later.