Back when we spent most days bashing President Barack Obama, one of our criticisms was that he kept his academic records secret. Then-private citizen Donald Trump was similarly critical about it, and told the Associated Press back in 2011 that “I heard he was a terrible student — terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard? I’m thinking about it. Let him show his records.”
Now that we spend most days bashing President Trump, we feel obliged to note that Trump has also refused to release his academic records, and in fact has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep them secret. His longtime lawyer recently testified to Congress that he was directed to send threatening letters to every school Trump had attended, and The Washington Post reports some wealthy Trump were seeking to remove the records from his military high school as early as 2011, when Trump was mulling a run for the presidency.
Many of the same people who were fine with Obama’s refusal to release his records are now outraged by Trump’s lack of transparency, and of course many Trump supporters who pilloried Obama’s stand are fine with Trump doing the same thing. We try to be more consistently principled, though, and we don’t like such secrecy now any more than we did then. To be frank — and we know how Trump’s fans love frankness — we think it’s probably worse this time around.
There was some speculation that Obama wanted his records kept secret because they showed he’d been the beneficiary of affirmative action admissions policies, which might well be true, but it would be more hypocrisy for Trump or any of his defenders to fault Obama for taking advantage of the system. Trump’s hearsay evidence that Obama was a terrible student seems improbable, given that Obama was listed on his commencement program as a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, where he was elected editor of the prestigious law review by his peers. More conspiracy-minded types speculated the records would show he was listed as a foreign student, but no less an authority than Trump himself has now declared that “Obama was born in Hawaii — period.”
Obama must have had some motive to keep his records secret, but there’s no reason to believe it’s any more nefarious than Trump’s motive for doing the same. In Trump’s case, there’s also more reason to believe it was because he was a terrible student.
On the commencement program for Trump’s graduation from the University of Pennsylvania he’s one of the minority of students not listed as having earned honors, one of his professors at the school recalls him as “the dumbest goddamn student I ever had,” and none of Trump’s classmates or teachers are on record remembering his brilliance. The spelling and syntax and vocabulary of Trump’s “tweets” wouldn’t pass muster in a sixth grade English class, most sixth-graders are able to explain the causes of the Civil War that Trump still wonders about, and Trump’s knowledge of science and geography and mathematics seems just as limited. There’s no evidence that Trump was the excellent student he frequently to claims to have been except that he somehow got elected president, but Obama somehow got elected and then reelected with with bigger majorities than Trump in both the Electoral College and popular votes, yet Trump still wanted to see his records.
In an ideal democratic republic the voters would know everything about the candidates they’re voting for, from their school records to their latest medical checkup to their tax returns and financial dealings, but from now on presidents will likely get away with keeping all of that a secret. The Democrats will gripe about is]t when a Republican is in office, the Republicans will hold their outrage for the next Democratic president, and we’ll be consistently principled and perpetually annoyed.
— Bud Norman