Judge rules Trump can keep national monuments documents secret

You may recall President Trump’s decision to reduce the size of two national “monuments” created by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. The Bears Ears National Monument and Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument were both scheduled for a significant and long overdue trim. But since you can find some group willing to oppose anything done by a president from the other party, one organization has been pushing to have some of the Presidents documents relating to that decision released to the public. Beyond basic transparency, I’m not sure what that was supposed to accomplish, but a judge has shot down the request. (Associated Press)

The U.S. government does not have to turn over documents to an environmental law firm about the legal arguments for President Donald Trump’s decision to shrink national monuments, a judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge David Nye said Monday that the records are protected presidential communications.

Boise, Idaho-based firm Advocates for the West had sued for 12 documents withheld from a public records request related to Trump’s decision to reduce two sprawling monuments in Utah. Trump also is considering scaling back other monuments.

“This decision shows how difficult it is to force sunlight on a government that flourishes in secrecy,” group attorney Todd Tucci said.

Without knowing exactly what’s contained in the documents it’s difficult to say whether this is a good decision or not. We should obviously respect the ability to keep certain documents out of the public eye if they have the potential to endanger national security, but that sounds seriously unlikely here. There’s also some merit to the idea of allowing the president to receive advice on pending decisions such as the impact of a new piece of legislation and not have it show up in the press, though I’m far less sympathetic to that sort of cloaking activity. But the description of these documents makes it sound as if they were simply legal opinions on the handling of the creation or reduction of national monuments.

Why on Earth would that be sensitive information that the public shouldn’t be able to see? Even if there were some legal scholars calling the President’s ability to make such a move into question, that should be fair game for public debate. It also seems rather unlikely that competent legal scholars would advise Trump against it anyway. The wording of the 1906 Antiquities Act could hardly be more clear. It empowers the President to deal with the question of national monuments via executive action. And what one president does via such powers doesn’t preclude a future president from deciding to go in a different direction, particularly when the original order so clearly flies in the face of the definition of what a national monument is supposed to be and the amount of land it should block off.

Odds are that there’s nothing sinister or scandalous in those documents, particularly given the subject matter. But if it’s truly no big deal, why bother refusing the request and keeping them secret? It just seems to set a bad precedent when we should be expecting more transparency from the government rather than less. I’d like to see the President at least release a statement explaining his decision if not simply put the documents out for the public to view.