Election 2016 sometimes feels less like a national debate on which presidential hopeful possesses superior experience, better ideas and greater leadership bona fides — and more like a candidate-on-candidate slap fight over who’s shadier, sleazier and more deviously opaque.
Hillary Clinton’s recent reticence to reveal her bout with pneumonia provides new fodder for those who find the former secretary of state overly secretive. And what about Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman who’s shrouded many of his financial dealings in mystery?
A new Center for Public Integrity/Ipsos poll shows only one in four respondents consider Trump “honest and transparent” about his financial, business or investment dealings. For Clinton, it’s about one in three.
Such data indicate that most Americans “do not trust either candidate, which is further evidence that 2016 is a battle of the least popular candidates," Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson said. "This election is similar to giving a child the option of either finishing their vegetables or changing their kid brother’s diaper.”
Neither candidate deserves a transparency award. But a Center for Public Integrity analysis shows Clinton, when compared head-to-head with Trump, is the clear winner when it comes to making information available to the public.
A telling indication: Clinton’s campaign answered questions for this article while Trump’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Center for Public Integrity has explored the degrees to which Clinton and Trump have, across nine areas of concern to their campaigns, been transparent.
The areas include taxes, health, personal finances, press access and campaign money.
In 2008, questions about Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s health — he endured harrowing conditions in Vietnam as a prisoner of war, and later, underwent surgery for melanoma — swirled around the then-71-year-old candidate.
So months before Election Day 2008, McCain let reporters review 1,173 pages of his medical records and interview his doctors.
Clinton, 68, in July 2015 released a comparatively voluminous eight-paragraph health letter written by her physician.
The letters declared both Trump and Clinton healthy and fit to serve as president.
But several medical professionals and health policy experts interviewed consider the health letters a poor substitute for the candidates releasing actual records, particularly given how old they are — ages when medical problems become more likely.
“If a person has any health risk that could lead to a problem, the public would want to know that,” said Dr. Howard Brody, a physician and ethicist who recently retired from the University of Texas Medical Branch Institute for the Medical Humanities, where he for years served as director. “And with presidential candidates, the public has become used to general openness about health.”
In a statement, the Clinton campaign argued that Clinton is “the only candidate in the race who has met the standard expected of presidential candidates and provided a detailed medical letter by her long-time physician. … Donald Trump has put forward a laughable letter that omits basic health information including the date of his exam, past medications, family medical history, heart rate, respiratory rate, EKG or cholesterol level.”
Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, in a tweet Monday about Clinton’s health, declared that “lack of transparency is an overarching theme” for the former first lady, US senator and secretary of state.
Trump last month promised to release his full medical records — no specific date provided. “I think that both candidates, Crooked Hillary and myself, should release detailed medical records. I have no problem in doing so! Hillary?” Trump tweeted Aug. 28.
Trump, on Monday, added that he recently underwent a medical exam, the details from which he said he’d release this week on the Dr. Oz Show. On Wednesday, Trump’s campaign reversed course, saying the full release would occur at a later date. But Trump did share a one-page summary of the exam with Dr. Mehmet Oz, indicating he weighs 267 pounds and takes a statin drug to control his cholesterol.
Clinton, who last week fell ill with pneumonia, is also “going to be releasing additional medical information,” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon told MSNBC on Monday. Clinton offered almost no information about her condition until she nearly collapsed Sunday at a 9/11 memorial ceremony in New York City.
The verdict: Clinton currently edges Trump on the technicality that her paltry medical letter, coupled with its Wednesday update, contain marginally more information than what Trump has released. Both candidates may yet reveal more details. But neither candidate has remotely approached the modern transparency standard set by McCain — one that President Barack Obama and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney also fell short of.
Presidential nominees aren’t required to publicly release their income tax returns, but almost all do, according to the Tax History Project.
Seventy-one percent of respondents in the Center for Public Integrity/Ipsos’ poll said all presidential candidates should release their 2015 tax returns. Just 12 percent said the candidates should not.
Tax documents “don’t necessarily present a full picture of someone’s wealth, but they do provide more detailed information on decisions about charitable contributions, investment strategies and foreign holdings,” tax reporter Richard Rubin wrote for Bloomberg last year.
Clinton has made public her annual income tax returns since 1977 — a fact she has regularly touted as proof of her commitment to transparency.
“Donald Trump is hiding behind fake excuses and backtracking on his previous promises to release his tax returns … what is he trying to hide?” Clinton said earlier this year upon releasing her 2015 tax return.
In a statement to the Center for Public Integrity, the Clinton campaign further asserted that Trump “is breaking with the long-standing bipartisan tradition of releasing his tax returns and is hiding the full extent of his financial entanglements.”
Never has Trump publicly released a tax return, which would likely provide deep insight into the financial and philanthropic priorities of a man who ranks among the nation’s wealthiest.
Former IRS commissioners have said an audit does not prevent Trump from releasing his tax returns at his leisure.
The verdict: It’d be difficult for Clinton to be more transparent with her tax returns. It’d be difficult for Trump to be less transparent. Trump, however, still has time to make his tax returns public, ensuring that he doesn’t become the first major presidential nominee in more than 40 years to not release his or her tax returns. Advantage Hillary.
Both Clinton and Trump earn plaudits for the information they provide the Federal Election Commission about the people who’ve contributed more than $200 to their respective campaigns this election.
More than 95 percent of such Clinton donors provide complete information about themselves: name, location, employer and occupation, according to data provided to the Center for Public Integrity by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance research organization. Such information helps illuminate the economic interests of a candidate’s supporters.
Trump isn’t far behind, with more than 92 percent of his major donors qualifying for “full disclosure” status, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ rubric.
There’s no such parity when it comes to presidential campaign “bundlers” — usually wealthy and well-connected people who volunteer to raise hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars for their favored candidate’s political committee. They then deliver their cash stash in a “bundle” to their campaign of choice.
Since campaign finance laws prohibit individuals from contributing more than $2,700 to a federal candidate per election, bundlers help candidates efficiently collect money. They’re a bit like overachieving PTA parents who crush school fundraising records — except the bundlers are more likely to own Bentleys and private jets.
Federal law doesn’t require presidential candidates to disclose their bundlers, unless the bundler is a registered federal lobbyist.
But George W. Bush, Kerry, McCain and Obama are recent presidential candidates who have volunteered at least some information about their bundlers, lobbyist or not.
During the 2012 election, for example, Obama disclosed the names, states and cities of his bundlers. He also provided dollar ranges — $50,000 to $100,000; $100,000 to $200,000; $200,000 to $500,000; and $500,000 and up — indicating their bundling totals.
Romney became the first major presidential candidate since 2000 to release no bundler information at all.
Clinton calls her bundlers “Hillblazers.” Her campaign maintains a list, available on her website, of Hillblazers who’ve bundled at least $100,000 — more than 870 bundlers in all.
While Clinton provides a city and state for each person listed, she offers no added detail about how much money a person has bundled. Nor does she provide additional identifying information about her bundlers. That’s hardly a problem if one wants to confirm the identity of “Andrew M. Cuomo / Albany, N.Y.” It’s a touch trickier for, say, “Richard Cohen / New York, N.Y.”
Trump has so far played the Romney card, disclosing no information about his campaign bundlers. He has not said whether he will change his mind between now and Nov. 8.
The verdict: Overall, a win for Clinton. Sure, she could provide more information about her biggest bag men and women, and she falls short of the disclosure standard Obama set. But some bundler transparency is worth more than none, and none is all Trump has offered to date.
Personal financial disclosures
In mid-May, federal law required both Trump and Clinton to file personal financial disclosures that detail — to an extent — their assets and income.
The primary purpose of these disclosures, filed by senior government officials as well as candidates for federal office, is to “assist agencies in identifying potential conflicts of interest between a filer's official duties and the filer's private financial interests and affiliations,” according to the United States Office of Government Ethics.
Both Trump and Clinton fully complied with federal requirements and submitted their information without delay, even though federal rules entitled them to apply for up to two, 45-day filing extensions. They offered no more, and no less, than what the forms required.
The documents themselves have limits.
Candidates, for example, are only required to provide values of their assets in broad ranges, meaning a stock holding worth $2.5 million would be listed as being worth “$1,000,001 to $5 million.” If a candidate is exceptionally rich, as both Trump and Clinton are, such reporting wiggle room makes it virtually impossible for anyone to accurately calculate a candidate’s overall wealth.
Moreover, candidates aren’t generally required to list the values of their residences or vehicles.
The documents, therefore, are not of much use for determining how much of a billionaire Trump really is. But that’s not Trump’s fault.
The verdict: A tie. Both candidates filed their documents on time, without delay, in accordance with the law.
A candidate’s website is a likely starting point for someone itching for detailed policy information straight from the source.
As of early September, Clinton’s website featured an “issues” section containing information on six topic areas: “economy and jobs,” “education,” “environment,” “health,” “justice and equality” and “national security.”
These six topic areas are then broken down into sections detailing 38 separate policy matters — from “LGBT rights and equality” to “Wall Street reform” to “protecting animals and wildlife.”
Added up, Clinton’s issues section contains about 22,000 words, by the Center for Public Integrity’s count. Most of the individual sections contain fewer than 1,000 words each. But many provide links to supplementary material such as related speeches, campaign videos, blog items and fact sheets. The fact sheets alone contain about 120,000 additional words worth of information.
Trump’s website features a “positions” section with seven topic areas: “economic vision,” “pay for the wall,” “healthcare reform,” “US-China trade reform,” “Veterans Administration reforms,” “Second Amendment rights” and “immigration reform.”
Added up, Trump’s issues section contained about 9,200 words as of early September. More than one-fourth of those words detail Trump’s immigration and border wall plans.
Trump’s website also contains separate sections for press releases, statements and “issues.” The issues section is composed of 21 YouTube videos, most featuring Trump himself discussing both broad-based topics — the economy, the military — and the decidedly esoteric, such as “Trump University Truth” and “Live Free or Die.”
The videos are thick with superlatives, thin on specifics and range from 28 seconds in length to 3 minutes 7 seconds.
In one video from January, titled “Self Funding,” Trump makes statements that were largely true then, but demonstrably false now. “I’m totally self-funding my campaign so I don’t have to take donors and special-interest people and lobbyists — I don’t have to bring them in,” Trump declares.
Except Trump is not totally self-funding his campaign, nor is he anywhere close to doing so. Rather, Trump’s campaign has in recent months aggressively solicited money from individuals and political committees. Of the $128 million Trump’s campaign has raised through July, $52 million has personally come from Trump. Separately, Trump has welcomed the support of several pro-Trump super PACs, which may raise unlimited amounts of money to promote or attack candidates.
The verdict: Clinton’s website features more policy information and covers more topics. A political novice who wants to learn where the candidates stand on issues will learn much more from Clinton ‘s website than from Trump’s website.
Then again, you may consider him a rare commodity in American politics: someone willing to communicate candidly with minimal self-censoring.
Trump calls CNN “unwatchable.” Sen. Ted Cruz is a “nasty guy” and a “loser.” Television host Bill Maher is an “idiot.” Trump’s Twitter account is equal parts tornado, torpedo and vaudeville, smashing, attacking and entertaining its way to attention and tackling almost any topic that tickles Trump’s fancy.
It’s tempting to dismiss Twitter — and Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and others — as secondary to press conferences, campaign statements, commercials and other, more traditional forms of political messaging.
But Trump has 11.5 million Twitter followers. During Election 2016, reporters have written and broadcast hundreds of news stories about what Trump tweets.
Clinton has almost 8.8 million Twitter followers of her own, but her tweets come largely from her campaign, reveal less about the candidate and merit much less attention.
The verdict: Trump by a terabyte. No presidential nominee has ever, for better or for worse, been more unfiltered on social media.
Presidential candidates are running to lead a country. How the candidates run their own charitable operations offers insight on how they lead.
The Clinton Foundation, in its own words, sounds like a leader and a winner. It exists to build “partnerships of great purpose between businesses, governments, NGOs and individuals to work faster, better and leaner; to find solutions that last; and to transform lives and communities from what they are today to what they can be, tomorrow.”
Like most charities, the organization — led in part by former President Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea Clinton and formerly known as the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation when Clinton herself was directly involved — must file annual reports with the IRS detailing its finances.
It’s done that, and more. In December 2008, as Hillary Clinton was poised to become secretary of state, the Clinton Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding requiring it to name its contributors.
On paper, the arrangement represents an “unusual” level of transparency among charitable initiatives, said Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
The foundation failed to reveal hundreds of donors to a Canadian affiliate, slow-walked other disclosures and provided donation figures in broad ranges, making it impossible to determine how much money a litany of questionable donors — foreign governments, included — have given.
While Charity Navigator this month gave the Clinton Foundation its highest rating for operational strength and transparency, the nonprofit watchdog organization last year placed the foundation on a “watch list” — a move prompting significant blowback from Clintonworld.
Meanwhile, Clinton is facing endless attacks from conservatives who consider the Clinton Foundation a pay-to-play monstrosity — author and activist Peter Schweizer wrote a 256-page book, “Clinton Cash,” about it. Write the Clintons a big check, get access to Bill and Hillary, the criticism goes. Even liberals such as MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow have questioned Clinton.
“Secretary Clinton, the other day your campaign said that voters who are concerned about the ethics surrounding the Clinton Foundation should not vote for you. Do you agree?” Trump spokesman Jason Miller asked three days later, pointing to an MSNBC interview with a Clinton spokesman.
Blunting Trump’s criticism is the fact that his foundation gave $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation years ago. (Trump defended the donation to Fox News, saying, “The Clinton Foundation was helping with Haiti and with lots of other things, and I thought it was going to do some good work. So, it didn't make any difference to me.”)
Trump’s Donald J. Trump Foundation — a much smaller charity that in 2014 doled out less than $600,000 in grants, according to tax returns — has its own problems.
One big problem in particular: The Donald J. Trump Foundation straight up broke federal tax laws in 2013 when it illegally pumped money into a political organization supporting Pam Bondi, Florida’s attorney general. Charitable nonprofits are prohibited from making such political contributions.
The $25,000 donation to a pro-Bondi political group — the latest campaign finance-related trouble Trump has faced — came six days after a Bondi spokeswoman said Bondi’s office was “reviewing” allegations against Trump University, Trump’s for-profit program that offered courses in real estate investments. Critics have lambasted the program as a “scam,” “scheme,” “fraud” and “lie.”
Bondi’s office never pursued the Trump University matter.
After the IRS flagged the illegal donation, the Donald J. Trump Foundation coughed up a $2,500 penalty to placate the tax man.
"It was just an honest mistake," Jeffrey McConney, president and controller at the Trump Organization, told the Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold. "It wasn’t done intentionally to hide a political donation, it was just an error."
Bill Clinton, speaking this month to a crowd in Orlando, disagreed.
"My charity helps people,” he said. “His is used to pay off your attorney general.”
This follows a damning report by the Washington Post that casts doubt on Trump’s claims of charity. Trump’s campaign refuses to provide documentation, including tax returns, detailing or verifying his charitable contributions.
“He makes contributions personally, and there’s no way for you to know or understand what those gifts are or when they are made,” Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks told BuzzFeed.
CNN’s Alisyn Camerota on Tuesday asked Conway, Trump’s campaign manager, whether Trump would detail how much he’s given to charity.
“I doubt it,” Conway replied. “This is like badgering. I don't see it as journalism, I see it as badgering.”
And this weekend, the Washington Post published a scathing report explaining how Trump has taken credit for charitable activity funded by other donors to his foundation.
The verdict: Politically speaking, there are no winners here. Both foundations are different in size and service, but neither Clinton nor Trump have done themselves election season favors this year through their charitable operations.
Regardless of what good the Clinton Foundation is doing and has done, it has grown into a massive albatross for Clinton. USA Today, the Boston Globe, Huffington Post — hardly Trump train passengers — have either called on the Clinton Foundation to curtain its fundraising or shut down altogether.
Trump, meanwhile, faces continued fallout from his charity’s illegal political contribution: A Democratic organization has filed a complaint against the foundation with the US Department of Justice, and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is opening an inquiry into the Donald J. Trump Foundation.
On balance, Trump has this election been less transparent about his philanthropy — to the extent he’s genuinely philanthropic — than Clinton has been. If Trump is generous with his money, he’s not offering much evidence of it.
Trump brings the fire.
Reporters are “dishonest,” “scum,” “horrible,” “sleazy” and “disgusting and corrupt” — although probably not worth killing. They’re targets of mockery. They get tossed from Trump rallies. Their news organizations are blacklisted and banned from obtaining coverage credentials. And, of course, there was the misdemeanor battery arrest in March of then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who grabbed then-Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields after a news conference. (Lewandowski was not prosecuted.)
Clinton brings the ice.
First, there was Clinton’s reporter rope jail. Then, she went 275 days between bona fide press conferences — or maybe 278? — and all but froze out journalists traveling with her. Like Trump, she flew around the country on a different plane than reporters, only bringing the press aboard earlier this month.
So much for Clinton’s promise to a roomful of journalists gathered last year in Washington, D.C., for Syracuse University’s Toner Prize political reporting award ceremony. There, Clinton said she’d aim for a “new relationship with the press” and “no more secrecy, no more zone of privacy.”
Leaders of several journalism organizations consider neither Trump nor Clinton paragons of transparency.
“Because of the power vested in the president, it is critical for the press to have access to the leading White House contenders so that the public stays well informed. As the general election heats up, both candidates can still do better on this score,” said Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and a Reuters reporter.
“If you want to be the leader of the free world, you shouldn't be afraid of holding a news conference and answering questions. If you want to prove to Americans you have the temperament to be president, you can't ban reporters because you don't like what they write,” said Thomas Burr, president of the National Press Club and reporter in the Salt Lake Tribune’s Washington, D.C., bureau.
Said Pam Fine, president of the American Society of News Editors: “It doesn’t serve the public when candidates either keep the press at arm’s length or constantly accuse the news media of being biased or self-serving.”
Despite Trump’s tempestuousness, the Republican nominee has in recent months repeatedly sat for lengthy, no-holds-barred interviews with national news outlets, including NBC’s “Meet the Press” with Chuck Todd, CNN’s “The Lead” with Jake Tapper, ABC World News Tonight with David Muir and Fox News’ “Fox and Friends.”
For example, while enforcing a ban on Washington Post reporters from campaign events, Trump was in the midst of 20-hours-worth of interviews for Trump Revealed, said Michael Kranish, the book’s co-author and a Washington Post investigative reporter.
“That’s a high level of access — he took our questions, he answered follow-ups, he repeatedly called back,” Kranish said. “He’d both complain and say he respected what we were trying to do.”
NBC reporter Katy Tur, who’s traveled with Trump for more than a year, chronicled in Marie Claire her roiling reporter-candidate relationship with the Republican candidate. It’s boomeranged from him publicly demeaning her to sitting for exclusive interviews.
In contrast, New York Times reporter Amy Chozick, who’s covered Clinton for more than eight years, described in a July interview on public radio program Fresh Air how Clinton has been “very inaccessible” in 2016 with the reporters who cover her most closely. Chozick confirmed in an email last week Clinton has only conducted a single one-on-one interview with Chozick during Election 2016 while keeping most of her traveling press corps at bay.
Clinton, Chozick said, was notably more accessible during her 2008 presidential run. She flew on the same airplane with reporters, regularly joked and chatted with them — glass of wine in hand, occasionally — and even called some of their significant others on Valentine’s Day to apologize for keeping them tethered to the campaign trail.
Clinton’s campaign parried such access criticism, noting that the Democratic nominee “has sat for hundreds of interviews across the country from a wide range of outlets and has answered thousands of questions on every conceivable topic without ground rules on the questions that can be asked.”
But an analysis last month by National Public Radio’s David Folkenflik shows that some of the interviews Clinton has conducted have been with non-journalists, such as entertainers or even other politicians. Clinton “favored television above all other forms of media” and “emphasized brief interviews with local television news stations,” the analysis concluded. “She also frequently graced local radio hosts with her calls.”
The analysis also showed that Trump has appeared for more interviews than Clinton on Sunday morning public affairs shows.
The verdict: Trump is unquestionably hostile toward reporters. He may even “hate” them. Many journalists are concerned his love of press freedom is somewhere between his fondness for federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel and windmills. But by most measures, Trump has been more accessible to the press during Election 2016.
Emails, immigration, transcripts
There’s no Trumpian analogue to what’s been Clinton’s most enduring transparency saga: her use of a private State Department email server.
Still unclear is why she had one, the degree to which she misused it and if she still continues to hide material the public is entitled to read. Oh, and why an aide destroyed two of Clinton’s BlackBerry devices with a hammer.
Last month, newly revealed emails showed how prominent Clinton Foundation donors had sought access to key officials at the Clinton-led State Department. The whole matter has been the subject of an FBI investigation. Trump says it’s “worse than Watergate.”
“If you’re not telling the truth about your conduct, then that is the exact opposite of transparency,” said Tom Fitton, president of conservative nonprofit organization Judicial Watch, which has waged a years-long legal battle with the federal government to access Clinton’s emails.
And remember the paid, private speeches Clinton gave earlier this decade to Wall Street executives, including those at Goldman Sachs, the financial giant whose employees have over the years ranked among the nation’s most generous to Clinton’s political campaigns?
Trump isn’t dogged by email or transcript issues, making a direct comparison with Clinton moot. But Trump has been party to a variety of other transparency flaps — most notably involving lawsuits, the details of which he often doesn’t discuss.
Questions also remain about the immigration history of his Slovenian-born wife, Melania, who has all but disappeared since her speech at the Republican National Convention plagiarized parts of first lady Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech.
On Wednesday, Melania Trump herself said she “correctly went through the legal process” in gaining her US citizenship. She also released a letter from an immigration attorney, who said Melania Trump followed proper immigration procedures.
The verdict: Clinton’s secrets in part involve her service as secretary of state, the government official fourth in line to the presidency. They have caused her campaign sustained troubles that have yet to dissipate.
Her refusal to reveal transcripts of speeches to financial titans help fuel a criticism — raised again in recent days as she conducted a series of private fundraisers with some of the world’s most well-known people — that she’s quite candid and accessible to people with massive wealth and a willingness to use it to help her.
(Clinton’s campaign noted that “throughout this race, we have been the only campaign to provide press with background information about every fundraiser Hillary Clinton attends.”)
And while Trump is no open book, his lack of transparency in these regards hasn’t been nearly as much a campaign liability for him. Advantage Trump.
The Clinton campaign, in a statement to the Center for Public Integrity, said of Trump: “We know the least about Donald Trump of any major party nominee in recent memory.”
Trump’s staff, meanwhile, has accused Clinton of waging a “campaign to deceive media and the public.”
But while Clinton is known for her secrecy, by virtue of her tax returns, her willingness to name campaign bundlers and list donors to her charity, she trumps Trump on the transparency issue, albeit incompletely.
This story is from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative media organization in Washington, D.C. Read more of its investigations on the influence of money in politics or follow it on Twitter.