Last week, President Trump quietly announced that his administration will stop the Obama-era practice of releasing the White House visitor logs to the public, claiming it is a matter of national security.
This means that the revolving door of lobbyists, activists, and political donors coming to meet with the President and his senior staff will be kept secret, granting anonymity to those who supposedly have the most face time and influence with the administration.
Government watch dog groups were outraged over Trump’s flippant disregard for transparency, calling the national security argument “a falsehood,” and pointing to Obama’s practice of not releasing the names of officials attending high-profile intelligence meetings. Many are arguing that the move to withhold all visitors’ names is a blatant attempt to hide something from the public.
Before the White House’s announcement, the National Security Archive, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University all filed lawsuits to gain access to visitors’ logs under the Freedom of Information Act. These groups wanted to see the visitors not just to the White House, but also to Trump Tower in New York as well as Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach where Trump frequently conducts official White House business.
There is debate over whether or not the visitors’ logs are subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. Some, including the Obama administration, claimed they were not because they are White House records. Other’s claim the logs are able to be requested because they are kept by the Secret Service, a governmental agency subject to the law.
Under the Presidential Records Act, the public will not be able to gain access to the President’s visitors’ logs requests until five years after the end of the administration.
A court ruled in 2011 that it is not against the law for the White House to withhold the names of visitors, though the Obama administration continued to release them, disclosing over six million White House visitor records during his terms. The Obama administration did make exceptions for some people, such as private guests of the first family or those coming to be interviewed for Supreme Court nominations.
Trump’s visitors’ logs gained increased attention recently after it was discovered that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes secretly went to the White House to view so-called “evidence” that Trump campaign associates were accidentally recorded during counter-intelligence surveillance of foreign targets. It later came out that the FBI had obtained at least one FISA warrant to directly surveil Trump campaign associate and suspected Russian collaborator, Carter Paige, proving either Nunes’s evidence or explanation false. Nunes has since recused himself from the investigation into Russian interference.
This latest abandonment of transparency norms by the President came the day before the nationwide Tax March, when people took to the streets to demand Trump release his tax returns. Before becoming President, Trump notoriously chastised Obama for not releasing his birth certificate and college transcripts, accusing him of “hiding something.”
Media Resources: New York Time 4/14/17; The Hill 4/10/17; Chicago Tribune 4/17/17