Inconvenient Information: How the Trump Administration Squelches Data, Uses Pseudo-Statistics, Stifles Expert Views and Cancels Important Studies
By Alan Zibel
Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s infamous claim that former press secretary Sean Spicer provided “alternative facts” about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd has set the tone for the Trump administration.
President Donald Trump, his allies and his administration distort the truth on a regular basis, as evidenced by Trump’s public statements and in the way the Trump administration runs the federal government.
While many politicians dissemble and exaggerate, Trump has made lying part and parcel of how the government operates. He personally uttered more than 2,000 falsehoods in just under one year in office. The website Politifact has evaluated hundreds of Trump’s claims and rated 69 percent as either “mostly false” “false” or “pants on fire.” By contrast, only 26 percent of President Barack Obama’s statements fell into those three categories.
Following the example of the president, falsehoods and dishonesty have also infected the way Trump administration officials run the government. Members of Trump’s cabinet have made false statements on numerous issues, perhaps picking up Trump’s own proclivity for lies.
The Trump administration has declined to collect important information, deleted publications that contradict its policy goals, silenced the views of scientists, removed information from federal websites, politicized the scientific grant-making process, prohibited experts from using common words, kept White House visitor logs secret and actively misled the public in official reports.
These are not random suppressions of data and evidence, simply a byproduct of carelessness. The Trump administration-wide information suppression is a considered and concerted effort to serve corporate and extremist ideological interests. The administration has:
- Suppressed studies that contradicted its preferred positions on big business priorities including corporate tax giveaways, a regulatory proposal to enable management to steal tip income from restaurant workers, mining and oil drilling
- Manipulated the census and other data collection efforts to drive forward an anti-immigrant and racist agenda.
- Aimed to shut down rigorous studies to evaluate how to reduce teen pregnancy.
- Failed to get input from scientists and other experts.
Below are 25 examples of how the Trump administration has conducted a war against information it considers inconvenient. The list is not meant to be comprehensive but is simply illustrative of how the Trump administration has denied facts, rejected expert advice and promoted falsehoods.
- Defunding a program that uses evidence-based initiatives to reduce teen pregnancy rates: The Trump administration cut off five-year grants awarded under a government teen pregnancy prevention program, leaving local organizations without the support they need to help reduce the teen pregnancy rate. This program, created by Congress in 2010, funds a range of evidence-based efforts and has served as an example of an effective use of evidence to shape policy. In February, Public Citizen filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of grant recipients who allege that their grants were illegally terminated before they were scheduled to end.
- Halting a study of mountaintop coal mining health effects: In August 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine announced it had been directed by the Interior Department to cease all work on a study of serious health risks for people living near coal mine sites in Central Appalachia. The Interior Department attributed the decision to “an agency-wide review of its grants and cooperative agreements in excess of $100,000” due to budget constraints. “It appears that the only people Trump cares about in Appalachia are coal executives, not the people who’ve lived and worked here for generations,” said a representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.
- Suspending a study on offshore drilling safety: The Interior Department in December 2017 ordered the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to suspend all work on a $580,000 study to review and update the bureau’s offshore oil and gas operations inspection program to enhance safety. The study is of crucial importance in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, in which 11 workers were killed.
- Dialing back a study of mining in a wilderness area: The Trump administration scaled back research into the environmental impact of copper mining in a northern Minnesota wilderness area, limiting the scope of a detailed scientific study ordered by the Obama administration, which had halted plans for the mining.
- Failing to get input from scientists: A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that federal science advisory committees met fewer times in 2017 than at any time since tracking began in 1997. The group criticized the Trump administration for “an unprecedented level of stalled and disbanded scientific advisory committees, cancelled meetings, and dismissed experts.” For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific advisory board hasn’t met since August 2017, leading to concerns that it is being sidelined amid EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s pro-polluter agenda. One board member told E&E News:“I guess I’m still on it.”
- Censoring climate change information: The Trump administration has scrubbed information about climate change from numerous government websites. Just months after taking office, the EPA quickly dismantled its main climate change website, saying the changes reflect the EPA’s new direction” and claiming that officials were merely removing “outdated language.” The Environmental Data & Governance Initiative, which monitors tens of thousands of web pages across federal agencies, found that language referring to climate change was removed from websites at the Interior Department, State Department and Energy Department as well as the EPA.
- Eliminating disclosure of international oil payments: The Trump administration has exited an international effort designed to combat corruption by requiring energy and mining firms to disclose payments given to governments. Trump also signed legislation repealing a Securities and Exchange Commission regulation requiring oil, gas and mining companies to disclose payments to foreign governments. The rule had been required by a bipartisan provision in the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial law.
- Killing a rule requiring federal contractors to disclose past safety violations: Trump signed legislation overturning the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order. This initative, enacted by President Barack Obama, required contractors bidding on federal projects to disclose all labor law violations – including workplace safety violations – for the past three years, with the goal of allowing government agencies to consider this information in determining whether to award federal contracts.
- Making it harder to find out whether workers have been injured or killed on the job: Trump signed legislation to repeal a requirement that employers keep records of serious workplace injuries and illnesses going back five years. Now employers must maintain injury and illness data going back only six months. The Trump administration has also reduced the amount of information about workplace fatalities disclosed by the government and withheld records about workplace injuries and illnesses, prompting a Public Citizen lawsuit arguing the administration is withholding that information illegally.
- Scrapping an effort to collect data about unequal pay among women and men: Despite Ivanka Trump’s promise that her father would “fight for equal pay for equal work,” the Trump administration put on hold a rule that would have required large companies to report salary data by gender and race.
- Shelving an economic analysis of how a “tip-stealing” rule would impact workers: The Trump administration eliminated a Labor Department economic analysis of a proposal changing rules so business owners can take worker’s tips or redistribute tips paid to one worker to other workers. Bloomberg Law reported that senior political appointees at the Labor Department ordered staff experts to change the study’s methodology after the government analysis showed workers could lose billions in tips. Trump appointees “disagreed with assumptions in the analysis that employers would retain their employees’ gratuities, rather than redistribute the money to other hourly workers,” Bloomberg Law wrote.
- Not collecting data on LGBTQ status: During the campaign, Trump said he would support LGBTQ Americans, tweeting that he would “fight for you while Hillary brings in more people that will threaten your freedoms and beliefs.” In a string of actions, though, he has done the opposite, partly by canceling official efforts to collect information on the LGBTQ community. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services removed a survey question about sexual preferences from a survey of older adults, restoring that question only after a public outcry. Most significantly, the Census Bureau concluded in March 2017 that there was no need to ask about sexual orientation or gender identity on its two biggest surveys of the U.S. population. This decision came despite a concerted push from LGBTQ advocates who say adding this information to census data would help guide federal funding decisions and foster a better public understanding of the LGBTQ community’s makeup. Critics suspected political interference after references to “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” were absent from a report to Congress but remained in an appendix. A Census Bureau spokeswoman seemed to confirm those concerns by telling FiveThirtyEight.com that discussion of the LGBTQ data collection “was removed prior to publication, but was inadvertently left in the appendix.”
- Failing to revamp census questions on Hispanic origin: The Census Bureau rejected a plan to revamp how it asks Americans about their racial and ethnic background to reflect the country’s growing multiethnic population. The current census questions are problematic for many Hispanics who don’t see themselves as fitting into the existing census’ race categories, and prefer their family’s country of origin over the labels “Hispanic” or “Latino.” The Census Bureau tested another option: simply asking respondents to describe their “category” rather than “race” or “ethnicity.” By structuring the question in this manner, testing found that Hispanics were more likely to give detailed information on their ethnic backgrounds. Civil rights groups were disappointed by the decision to not revamp these questions, saying it ignored research and scientific advice. The census, conducted every 10 years, determines how many seats in the House of Representatives are awarded to each state. As a result, undercounting minorities in the 2020 census would disenfranchise those voters and result in an inaccurate portrayal of America.
- Not collecting census data on Middle Eastern origin: The Census Bureau also decided not to include a category on people with Middle Eastern or North African roots, despite a Census Bureau report concluding that “it is optimal to use a dedicated ‘Middle Eastern or North African’ response category” on the 2020 census questionnaires.
- Squelching census responses by trying to add a question on citizenship: Trump’s Justice Department has also been pushing to add a question on citizenship to the census, alarming civil rights groups who say doing so would result in lower census participation rates and paint an inaccurate picture of the U.S. population. “I can think of no action the administration could take that would be more damaging to the accuracy of the 2020 census than to add a question on citizenship,” one expert on census issues told the New York Times. An economist the conservative American Enterprise Institute has urged the Commerce Department to turn down the Justice Department’s request for a citizenship question, saying that many people will simply “refuse to answer the survey or provide false information.”
- Establishing a commission to “investigate” phony allegations of voter fraud: Trump appointed Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to lead a panel studying alleged voter fraud. This commission was shut down after states objected to intrusive data requests and amid criticism that the panel was designed not to protect the integrity of the vote but to intimidate voters, especially people of color.
- Cutting data from an annual crime report: The website FiveThirtyEight.com analyzed the FBI’s 2016 edition of the Crime in the United States report, which gathers data from more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies around the country. It found that the report, published in September 2017, contained about 70 percent fewer data tables than the prior report issued under President Barack Obama. FiveThirtyEight found that the missing data include statistics on weapons, relationships between victims and offenders, the age, sex and ethnicity of victims and offenders. Data on the number of women murdered by their partners were unavailable, as were homicides related to the illegal drug trade.
- Issuing a misleading analysis of immigrants and terrorism: Acting on a Trump executive order, the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security issued a report highlighting cases in which immigrants were linked to terrorism plots. The report found that of the 549 people convicted of international terrorism charges between September 11, 2001 and the end of 2016. Of those, more than 400 individuals, or 73 percent, were foreign born, with 254 lacking U.S. citizenship. But the report was immediately criticized as misleading, because it only included terrorism incidents motivated by international terror groups while excluding violent homegrown extremists. Journalists and experts also noted that the report counted people captured overseas and brought to trial in the U.S. in the same category as immigrants who came to the US. and committed a crime years later. The report “intentionally confuses the threat of domestic terrorist attack with the number of foreigners, by increasing the number of foreigners,” Karen Greenberg, director of Fordham University’s Center on National Security, told the Washington Post. New York Times reporters wrote that the 11-page report was “confusing and in some respects misleading.”
- Removing, then restoring, statistics on drinking water and electricity in Puerto Rico: In October 2017, faced with a mounting humanitarian crisis in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, the Federal Emergency Management Agency deleted from federal webpage crucial statistics on the percentage of Puerto Ricans with power and access to drinking water. A FEMA spokesman initially told the Washington Post that such information was “readily available” on a Spanish-language website maintained by the Puerto Rican governor’s office. Shortly thereafter, it was restored to the FEMA site.
- Trying to water down statistics on predatory for-profit colleges: Just before leaving office, the Obama administration took an important step to hold accountable for-profit colleges that saddle students with high debt and worthless degrees. Before Trump took office, the Education Department released a spreadsheet of more than 8,000 career training programs and the levels of students’ debt compared to their earnings after graduation. However, the Trump administration has been trying to water down the rule, and even has floated the idea of evaluating career-training programs based on the top 50 percent of graduates. If these statistics are modified, it could become easier for career-training schools to avoid federal sanctions for producing too many graduates with low earnings and high debt.
- Making it harder for authorities to gather information on the student lending industry: Rather than aggressively policing companies that collect student loan payments, the Education Department has been working to shield the industry, barring student loan servicers from responding to information requests from third parties including state regulators, according to an internal memo obtained by Politico. The Education Department also claims that federal law bars states from regulating collectors of federal student loan debt, giving cover to abuses by student loan firms.
- Narrowing the scope of civil rights investigations at schools : Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ new rules for investigations of discrimination in public schools and universities focus on individual cases rather than systemic investigations of data to see whether the discrimination represents a larger problem at a school. This change in priorities has upset Democrats on Capitol Hill. “You claim to support civil rights and oppose discrimination, but your actions belie your assurances,” wrote Senate Democrats in a letter to DeVos.
- Spreading fake news on the Trump administration’s tax cut plans: Under Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, an ardent Trump cheerleader, the Treasury Department removed from its website a 2012 study refuting Mnuchin’s claim that businesses would pass on most of the savings from tax cuts to their workers. Mnuchin also falsely claimed that the tax cut would pay for itself and promised that the Treasury Department was conducting an analysis to prove the point. In the end, all Treasury published was a one-page document that a former Obama economic official called an “embarrassing joke.”
- Scaling back mortgage discrimination data: Shortly after the arrival of Trump’s acting director, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said it would consider scaling back parts of a law requiring detailed disclosure of mortgage loan information, and would not penalize lenders for errors in data collected in 2018. Separately, legislation moving through Congress, backed by the Trump administration, would let more than 80 percent of banks and credit unions avoid reporting home mortgage information including fees, rates and borrower credit scores. These pieces of data can be helpful in cracking down on lenders for discriminatory practices.
- Removing data on animal welfare: The U.S. Department of Agriculture removed thousands animal welfare documents from its website, including documents on the number of animals kept by research labs, circuses, companies and zoos, as well as inspection reports filed under a law barring the intentional injury of horses’ hooves and legs. The agency issued a statement citing the need to maintain “the privacy rights of individuals.” The agency later reposted information on its website, but now redacts more information. citing “privacy” concerns. “Hiding names of federally licensed businesses that violate rules and harm animals hardly seems like an advance in good government,” wrote USA Today in an editorial.