Friday morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced good news for the American economy — 223,000 new jobs and a further dip in the unemployment rate to 3.8 percent.
The news represents a continuation of longstanding economic trends that far predate Trump’s presence in office. But it’s also the sort of news that any president would brag about.
What’s unusual is that Trump bragged about the numbers before the data was released to the public — an unprecedented breach of protocol that poses some questions for the functioning of financial markets in the future. But, more fundamentally, it intersects with longstanding worries about corruption in the Trump administration.
Looking forward to seeing the employment numbers at 8:30 this morning.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 1, 2018
The crux of the matter is that while the president and his senior aides always get an advance look at the jobs data, they never talk about it in public. And while, in theory, Trump didn’t say anything about the content of the briefing he got Thursday night, he was clearly teasing good news about the report. And if he’s willing to be this cavalier about the rules in public, one has to wonder what he would do with the information in secret during his various late-night phone calls.
The jobs report is a closely guarded secret
The details of the BLS’s monthly Employment Situation Report are a closely guarded secret for the simple reason that the information in them moves financial markets.
To ensure the data is released in an equitable way, it is normally given in advance to a small group of journalists who are literally held in a locked room with no electronics 30 minutes before the official release so they can type up some copy.
The reporters who get a half hour of access to this information do so in a locked room, with no electronics and a few minders, so nothing can leak.— Lizzie O'Leary (@lizzieohreally) June 1, 2018
Trump’s preview tweet did, in fact, move financial markets, pushing up interest rates and the value of the dollar before the official release of the data:
This is...unusual. Trump tweeted about jobs day at 7:21am EST, suggesting he knew the numbers would be surprisingly good. https://t.co/k35UPSEPI6 That's how the market took it anyway, with U.S. yields taking a leg higher right after. Raises a lot of questions. pic.twitter.com/TcN9oLNYqU— Lisa Abramowicz (@lisaabramowicz1) June 1, 2018
Trump doing this isn’t the end of the world by any means, but it introduces some extra noise and instability into global financial markets for no real reason. The upside for Trump is, at best, that he draws some extra attention to a positive jobs report.
But realistically, the main thing that tends to crowd positive economic news off the media agenda is Trump’s habit of mouthing off in inappropriate ways. Developing a new jobs-oriented form of inappropriate mouthing off does not necessarily seem like the best fix for the situation.
The larger problem is that once you start breaking down the walls of secrecy around government economic data, you open up a world of possible corruption.
This information can be abused in many ways
The larger reason for secrecy around government economic data is not fear that it will be released early to the public, but that it will be spread privately to individuals who will then be able to make a profit off trading on insider information.
A normal president would have trouble getting away with this because his sources of income would be routinely disclosed to the public. Trump, however, does not disclose his income tax returns. And the information he does disclose about his financial assets is uninformative because it simply tells us he owns a lot of shell companies.
Trump also routinely holds freewheeling evening discussions with friends from the worlds of business and conservative media. He has even been known to casually leak Israeli intelligence to the Russian foreign minister in what we are all supposed to believe was an accident.
It’s obviously not possible for journalists to know for sure what non-Twitter use Trump is putting this information to in secret. As with many other Trump corruption issues, it would be relatively simple for Congress to use its oversight powers to find out.
But from Inauguration Day until today, congressional Republicans have unanimously preferred not to know anything about how Trump is misusing his powers of office for personal financial gain, so we’re not likely to find out as long as they remain in the majority.