White House Visitors: What Has Trump Got to Hide?

This article first appeared on Reason.com.

The Trump administration won't release White House visitor logs while Donald Trump is in office, ending the voluntary disclosures that began under President Barack Obama and drawing condemnation from transparency groups, who say the logs offered an incomplete but important window into outside influence in the nation's highest political office.

Time magazine first reported the news on April 14:

White House communications director Michael Dubke said the decision to reverse the Obama-era policy was due to "the grave national security risks and privacy concerns of the hundreds of thousands of visitors annually." Instead, the Trump Administration is relying on a federal court ruling that most of the logs are "presidential records" and are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

Three White House officials said they expect criticism of the new policy, but believe it is necessary to preserve the ability of the president to seek advice from whomever he wants, "with some discretion." They requested anonymity to discuss the policy before a formal announcement.

Under the Trump Administration's directive, logs of those entering the White House complex will be kept secret until at least five years after Trump leaves office—at which point they will first be eligible to be requested by the public, press and scholars. The White House did not say who would maintain custody of the records during his time in office.

"Unfortunately, this is part of a record that has made the Trump administration's first 100 days one of the least transparent in our history," says Alex Howard, deputy director at the Sunlight Foundation, in an interview with Reason. "It follows a campaign where the candidate declined to disclose his tax returns, bucking one of our democratic norms, and then declared himself exempt from conflict of interest laws."

04_20_Trump_Secret_01 Members of the Secret Service on the North Portico of the White House in Washington D.C., on September 29, 2014. C.J. Ciaramella writes that Trump's decision to scrap making the visitors log to the White House accessible is another concrete sign that he will resist any effort to expose the business and ideological interests guiding his policy behind closed doors. Jonathan Ernst/reuters

The White House began releasing visitor logs as part of President Obama's pledge to run "the most transparent administration in history." The logs were maintained by the Secret Service and hosted on Open.gov, a website that, as of April 14, is no longer functioning. (The Trump administration says scrapping the website will save $70,000 in taxpayer dollars by 2020. Meanwhile, his fabulous, just tremendous border wall is projected to cost $21.6 billion.)

Related: Lawsuit demands to know who is visiting Trump at the White House

Of course, Obama-era White House officials got around the added transparency measures by meeting off-site—often at the Caribou Coffee across the street from the White House—with lobbyists and other people whose appearance in the visitor logs would be politically awkward for the administration.

Not to mention, the logs were intentionally incomplete. The Obama administration reserved the right to redact or withhold names from the visitor log as it saw fit, and it successfully defended that right in court against a group of transparency and government watchdog organizations seeking the full logs.

A federal appeals court rejected their argument that the logs were subject to the Freedom of Information Act since they were maintained by the Secret Service, not the White House, which is largely exempt from public records requests.

Trump himself tweeted criticism in 2012 of the Obama administration's court fights to keep its records firmly under White House control.

“Why is @BarackObama spending millions to try and hide his records?" the future 45th president of the United States wrote. "He is the least transparent President--ever--and he ran on transparency."

"We all know the Obama administration chose not to disclose when celebrities and friends of the president met with him," Howard continues. "That said, it was still a meaningful window into who was going to the White House and who they met with."

Howard notes that the logs showed Google's director of public policy visited the Obama White House more than 100 times. "That's a meaningful measure of the influence of one of the world's top tech companies," he says. "Whether you think that's good or bad, it shows how influence is registered."

As for the purported security risk, Howard says the Obama administration released 6 million visitor logs without incident, all of which are still available at the National Archives. "No one thinks Obama wasn't able to get advice from anyone because they were releasing White House visitor logs," he says. "If you have concerns, show me one example in the last eight years that resulted in harm."

In a statement on the White House's decision to stop releasing visitor logs, American Civil Liberties Union Political Director Faiz Shakir says "the only reasonable conclusion is to believe the Trump administration has many things it is trying to hide."

Related: How Trump borrows from Putin's dirty tricks playbook

"Trump has bullied the press when they report on him," Shakir continues. "He has promoted the reporting of fake and outright false information. He imposed gags on federal employees in the earliest days of his administration. He has avoided disclosing his tax records, and he has avoided releasing information about his conflicts of interest."

While the White House visitor logs weren't as complete or transparent as the Obama administration would have had the public believe, their voluntary disclosure was, on the whole, one of the more commendable points in the administration's otherwise spotty transparency record.

The Trump administration's decision to scrap that policy is yet another concrete sign that it will resist any effort to expose the business and ideological interests guiding its conflict-prone chief behind closed doors.

C.J. Ciaramella is a criminal justice reporter at Reason.

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