Before stepping off a military jet last summer in Kentucky, where he viewed a solar eclipse at Fort Knox, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was doing something else in secret.
Mnuchin and his wife’s trip on Aug. 21, 2017, attracted massive public attention after she posted an Instagram photo of her stepping off the jet, tagging the top-tier designers she wore, and arguing with a commenter who questioned the appearance of living the glamorous life on the taxpayer’s dime. Later that day, they viewed the eclipse either on top or in front of the nation’s gold reserves.
But before all of that, Mnuchin’s schedule is completely blacked out.
The Treasury Department redacted six items on his calendar before 11:30 a.m. that day, when he attended a luncheon with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Two more items between the luncheon and the eclipse were also redacted. There was another redaction before a tour of the gold reserve, then two more before a 5 p.m. phone call with staff—the subject of which has also been redacted. Four more events were redacted after the call, leaving Mnuchin’s whereabouts and work unknown until he attended a speech by President Trump at 9 p.m.
It was all supposedly blacked out in the name of “techniques and procedures for law enforcement” under Exemption 7 of the Freedom of Information Act.
The exemption allows for the redaction of information that “would disclose techniques and procedures for law-enforcement investigations or prosecutions, or would disclose guidelines for law-enforcement investigations or prosecutions if such disclosure could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law.”
Essentially, Treasury has said, the redactions are necessary to prevent exposing security protocols that could put Mnuchin in danger, as well as potentially exposing law-enforcement operations.
“Treasury follows guidance from the Justice Department, revised in 2014, to redact information about the secretary’s security detail and measures taken to protect the secretary,” a Treasury Department spokesperson said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “Certain other aspects of the secretary’s calendars are not released publicly, including internal deliberative communications and national-security meetings or calls.”
But Mnuchin’s use of the exemption to redact information supposedly related to his personal security is significantly higher than his predecessors'.
In the first eight months of Mnuchin’s tenure, the Treasury Department used Exemption 7 148 times, or 18 times per month, on average. (So far, Treasury has released Mnuchin’s calendars only through September 2017, with the latest batch coming in mid-May.) By comparison, both Treasury secretaries in the Obama administration used law-enforcement exemptions 235 times in eight years. Mnuchin is using the exemption at three times the rate of his predecessors, and at nearly the rate of former Attorney General Eric Holder. (Calendars for Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other Cabinet members who also have high-level national-security clearance, like Mnuchin, have not yet been released.)
The revelation that Mnuchin is redacting significantly more information from his calendar comes at a time when several Cabinet members have come under scrutiny for travel expenses, like Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, or security and personal expenses, like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Craig Holman of the government watchdog group Public Citizen said the department’s use of Exemption 7 is questionable at best.
“In order to invoke Exemption 7 to conceal government records, the agency must be able to show with reasonable certainty that the disclosure would undermine enforcement investigations or prosecution or endanger the life or safety of the individual,” Holman told The Daily Beast.
“It is highly unlikely that any of these thresholds for redacting Mnuchin’s daily calendar are present. In fact, Mnuchin’s extensive and costly travel junkets—including viewing a solar eclipse (while traveling) onboard a military aircraft—strongly suggests another motive for the redactions: avoiding embarrassing public scrutiny of his costly travel jaunts at taxpayer expense.”
In some cases, Mnuchin has used Exemption 7 heavily on days that have come under scrutiny for his use of military jets for travel, like his trip to Kentucky where he viewed the solar eclipse.
A week after that trip, Mnuchin used the exemption 17 times in a single day, Aug. 28. That day he also used a military jet to travel first to West Virginia, then to Las Vegas.
A Treasury Department Inspector General (IG) report regarding the Las Vegas trip and others that found no wrongdoing on the part of Mnuchin over his travel expenses. The report was obtained by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) after the group sued Treasury.
The day of the trip to West Virginia and Las Vegas, Mnuchin’s staff noted four hours’ worth of official events in both locations. As with other trips that the IG investigated, the “standard language” of “scheduling, traveling and logistics,” along with a need for “secure communications” was used in Mnuchin’s application to the White House for a military jet.
In answering whether a purpose analysis for the trip was provided by Mnuchin, the IG states in its report, simply: “No detailed analysis provided.”
In its analysis of the report, CREW questioned Treasury’s estimate of four hours of official events, noting that “nowhere is the exact nature of those ‘official events’ explained.” In fact, just three hours, 10 minutes of Mnuchin’s whereabouts are accounted for that day, according to his calendar. The other hours and the 17 events that comprised that time are redacted.
Mnuchin’s travel that day cost taxpayers more than $94,000.