Today in OpenGov: Without Evidence


In today’s edition, we take a trip down to sunny Florida to read a batch of stories about President Trump’s potential conflicts of interest, try to make sense of stunning weekend of stunning presidential assertions made without evidence, share some advice for cities looking to boost their open data capabilities, and more…


Early Saturday morning, the President of the United States made a stunning allegation in a series of tweets: Trump accused former President Barack Obama of illegally “tapping” his phone at Trump Tower. As the Guardian reported, the President provided no additional information from any government agency or intelligence service to support the assertions. What the president knew, when and how is likely to be a common line of inquiry today & in the weeks ahead from journalists, the public and Congress.

It is both abnormal and important for a President to accuse his predecessor of tapping his phone during an election year, much less to do so without evidence. We would place this weekend’s events belong in the top right of the graphic created by the New York Times’ Upshot blog, below:

Over the course of the weekend, news organizations  have confirmed that the president sourced the story on Breitbart News, which  based a post on a talk show host’s conspiracy theory.

When asked for comment on Saturday by the New York Times, the White House offered no  evidence or  reports to substantiate the President’s allegations.

On Sunday, the White House press secretary released a statement in a series of tweets in which he did not provide sources for the president’s tweets, more evidence to back them up, nor comment otherwise. Instead, the president is calling on Congress to investigate the President’s unsubstantiated allegations.

Congressional investigators examining the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russians have an notable other consideration on that count: “senior American officials” cited by the New York Times said that F.B.I. director James B. Comey “asked the Justice Department this weekend to publicly reject President Trump’s assertion that President Barack Obama ordered the tapping of Mr. Trump’s phones. Mr. Comey has argued that the highly charged claim is false and must be corrected, they said, but the department has not released any such statement.” [New York Times]


This weekend POLITICO, dug into changes at Mar-A-Lago, President Trump’s south Florida club and “Winter White House.” Despite some “growing pains,” the club, as well as the Trump’s related business interests, appear to be profitting from his new job. Mar-A-Lago, which has a membership cap of 500, recently raised its initiation fee to $200,000 as the benefits of access to the President’s vacation home becomes clear:

“‘You can’t buy a membership to Camp David,’ said Jack McDonald, a former Mar-a-Lago member and former Palm Beach mayor, referring to the Maryland presidential retreat that Trump has yet to visit. ‘I can’t think of any other president where you could join a private club and actually see him fairly consistently.'”

Sunlight has been tracking the conflicts of interest posed by the President’s domestic and international business interests since late November. Our work as long since been augmented and extended by major investigative teams:

  • NPR has an ethics tracker. The New York Times has assigned reporters to documenting the Trump family’s navigation of the global conflicts.
  • Defense One is asking a question of fundamental importance: will the President’s foreign policy serve America’s interests or his own? Check out their regularly updated list.
  • President Trump’s worst deal may well be in Azerbaijan, where the Trump Organizations helped build a hotel in Azerbaijan that not only never opened but appears to be a “corrupt operation engineered by oligarchs tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.” [New Yorker]
  • The President’s adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump, are leveraging contacts they made while out on the campaign trail with their dad to expand the family business around the USA. “The expansion plan illustrates how President Trump’s political rise has the potential to affect his business even as he and his sons promise to adhere to a strict ethical boundary between the company’s moves and the Trump administration. And it shows the inherent challenge in separating the family’s political work from its corporate interests, with upsides and potential problems.” (Washington Post)
  • When the Trump sons travel for businesses,  however, it does come with a cost to American taxpayers since their father took office. “Since Donald Trump became president, his sons’ business travel has became much more complicated and expensive, especially when the travel is overseas, says Brendan Doherty, a U.S. Naval Academy professor who has tracked presidential travel for more than a decade.” (NPR)
  • Last week, the President moved to “rescind and rewrite” federal water regulations. Changing water rules move may be good for Trump’s business interests, potentially cutting “his costs as an owner of a dozen U.S. golf courses, again raising concerns about conflict of interest in the White House.” (Bloomberg)
  • Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a top White House policy advisor, “is required to comply with federal law forbidding employees from profiting from endeavors affected by government decisions in which they participate.” He has been working to disentangle himself from potential business conflicts of interest, but the extent to which he has actually done so remains unclear. (Government Executive)
  • Given how important ethical boundaries are in the unprecedented set of conflicts, the public might expect an unprecedented response. Instead, the Trump administration may be skirting its own ethics rules by hiring three former lobbyists. (ProPublica)
  • Some club members and their guests encountered by an unusual face this past weekend:  U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, reportedly at the Mar-a-Lago with the President to discuss a forthcoming executive order on immigration with other officials.  If public business is being conducted in the “Winter White House” by officials, the White House should disclose Secret Service visitor logs. Unfortunately, the White House has not committed to disclosing visitor logs to 1600 Penn yet, much less Mar-a-Lago.

States and Cities

The Civic Analytics Network, a consortium of chief data officers and analytics professionals in cities and counties around the United States, shared eight guidelines intended to boost the capabilities of government data portals and improve transparency this weekend.  (Data Smart-City Solutions)
  • Cities looking to “kick-start” a move towards more data-driven governance should ask themselves a number of key questions. (Governing)
  • The Colorado Senate is considering a bill that would require state agencies to provide information digitally where feasible. The legislation looks like a no-brainer to us, but a similar bill failed last year “amid concerns about costs and privacy.” (KUNC)

Open Data Day

On Saturday, thousands of people gathered around the globe at the 7th annual Open Data Day. In DC, Sunlight co-hosted an event with SPARC and the Center for Open Data Enterprise. We talked about the state of open data and then dug into mapping and USGS data.

Robert Palmer, now at the Open Data Charter, used the occasion to reflect on the growth of the transparency movement and explore challenges to openness around the globe.

“I think now is the time for us to become more political. This doesn’t mean that we need to be partisan or support a particular party. Instead, we must position the decision to open up government information as a political, not technocratic, one. We must sell openness as a core value for governments who respect and serve citizens.”

Upcoming Events

  • The DATA Coalition is hosting its annual Financial Data Summit on March 16th
  • The 8th annual Health Datapalooza is slated for April 27-28 in Washington, DC. “Health Datapalooza brings together a diverse audience of over 1,600 people from the public and private sectors to learn how health and health care can be improved by harnessing the power of data.”


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