Trump can spin economic numbers – but he likely can't manipulate them, experts say

  • Experts and former top economic officials say the economic data that underpins major government programs and forms the basis for private financial forecasts is likely safe from presidential interference.
  • Questions about the integrity of government data arose after The New York Times reported that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire weather agency officials over a statement contradicting Trump's claims about Hurricane Dorian.

President Donald Trump can spin the numbers, but he can't fudge them.

Experts and former top economic officials say that the economic data that underpins major government programs and forms the basis for private financial forecasts is likely safe from presidential interference.

Questions about the integrity of government data arose following a report in The New York Times on Monday that said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross threatened to fire senior officials at a federal scientific agency his department oversees after the agency contradicted the president's claims about Hurricane Dorian.

In the wake of that report, some former officials worried that it could suggest a willingness on the part of the Trump administration to intervene in other independent federal agencies, such as those that maintain the nation's economic data. The Bureau of Economic Analysis, for example, produces quarterly reports on the nation's gross domestic product, a data point Trump has touted as a metric of his performance as president and a credential for his 2020 reelection bid.

But, those with knowledge of the inner workings of the agencies and the White House economic advisory process say that any attempt to do so likely wouldn't work.

In short, the people who work at those agencies likely wouldn't put up with any kind of data manipulation.

"Let me put it this way — if they tried to do anything with the data, I think they would get caught," said Dean Baker, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

In a statement, a Commerce Department spokesperson said the report in the Times was "false." The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Long tradition of independence

The main thing standing in the way of political interference in the work of the government's statistical agencies is the long tradition of independence at the bureaus, according to Katharine Abraham, a former commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The BLS, which is under the Labor Department, and the BEA and Census Bureau, which are both under the Commerce Department, produce the major government statistics.

"There is, at all of these agencies, a culture of extreme independence," Abraham said. "In all of these places, people talk to reporters."

There are also procedural safeguards against the White House playing with the numbers, she said. No one outside of the BLS — and even most of those inside the agency — sees the most politically fraught figures, such as jobs data, until the commissioner and a relatively small group of career officials have written the accompanying press release. The White House receives the numbers, with the release, the night before the public.

"There are a lot of things that I worry about under this current administration. There are a lot of terrible things this administration has done. But I have never had any doubt that any of the economic data from BLS or BEA is legitimate," said Jacob Leibenluft, a former deputy director of the National Economic Council under President Barack Obama, and the head of Hillary Clinton's 2016 economic policy team during the general election campaign.

"I have high confidence that if there was political pressure put on those agencies to juice the stats, that we would hear about it," Leibenluft said.

On top of the procedural barriers, it would require a great deal of coordinated, specialized work to swap in new numbers without people immediately noticing, experts said.

Baker, the CEPR economist, pointed out that in some of the surveys, the underlying data behind the top-level numbers are released to the public.

"You've collected this survey from 60,000 households, and if you didn't have someone go in and change at least a substantial portion of them, people would catch it," Baker said. He added that it would take a well-coordinated "large-scale conspiracy" to pull it off.

"You would have to have a lot of people in on it," he said. "And they would have to know what they were doing."

The last president known to attempt to interfere in the work of the Bureau of Labor Statistics was Richard Nixon, who ordered an aide to tally the number of Jews and Democrats who worked at the agency, then had a number of them removed from their posts. Nixon's efforts were documented in the 1976 book "The Final Days" by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Eyes on final jobs report before 2020 election

The major statistical agencies lack some of the protections afforded to financial regulators such as the Federal Reserve.

Those protections have come in handy for Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, who said in response to reports that the president wanted to fire him over rate-setting policy that the "law is clear that I have a four-year term, and I fully intend to serve it."

"One aspect I have been thinking about lately is that there appears to be no political safeguards in place to protect the economic statistical agencies analogous to the safeguards in place to protect, for instance, the Federal Reserve," said David Wilcox, who served as director of the research and statistics division of the Fed until last year.

"What that means is that, it's not a situation of complete vulnerability, but it is one where the protections are soft protections rather than statutory hard barriers," he said.

Those soft protections — such as the agencies' tradition of independence — are robust, but not faultless, he said.

For instance, outside researchers would likely detect a systematic attempt to undermine the reliability of the statistics, he said. But they will not be able to detect "an incursion on the data at some critical juncture."

"There will come the last employment report before the November 2020 election," Wilcox said. "For that, the outside community will really not have real-time capability to conduct protective surveillance."

Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door project, which tracks malfeasance in the executive branch, said the risks are likely to escalate as Election Day gets closer, particularly if the economy sours. He said the quasi-judicial body that protects government whistleblowers is effectively powerless at the moment because it lacks a quorum.

"That's very scary if you are relying on civil servants to stand up to political appointees to do the right things," he said.

Hauser said the reaction from Wall Street and congressional Republicans would likely shape the president's reaction to any potential whistleblower report.

"If Trump feels he can just claim the whistleblower report is fake news, and get party-line backing of that claim with minimal pushback from donors and key party actors, then we might be in a really terrible situation," Hauser said. "Society kind of depends in that circumstance on some institutions choosing truth over partisan relationships."

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