Columns

White House Refuses to Release Visitor Logs

President Trump walks out of the Oval Office of the White House on April 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — Facing lawsuits from government transparency advocates, the Trump administration nevertheless reversed course from the Obama-era practice of posting White House visitor logs in an online, publicly accessible database.

The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the National Security Archive at George Washington University, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) announced earlier this week that they filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security after unanswered requests to the Secret Service to provide President Trump’s visitor logs at the White House, Mar-a-Lago and his New York office.

It was these FOIA lawsuits that led the Obama administration to agree to start posting the visitor logs in September 2009. The ethics.gov site created then now just contains archived Obama-era records.

White House Communications Director Mike Dubke released a statement Friday saying that while “instituting historic restrictions on lobbying to close the revolving door, expanding and elevating ethics within the White House counsel’s office, and opening the White House press briefing room to media outlets that otherwise cannot gain access, the Trump administration has broken new ground in ensuring our government is both ethical and accessible to the American people.”

“Given the grave national security risks and privacy concerns of the hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, the White House Office will disclose Secret Service logs as outlined under the Freedom of Information Act, a position the Obama White House successfully defended in federal court,” Dubke added.

The administration is arguing that, as presidential records, the logs should become accessible five years after Trump leaves office.

CREW replied in a statement, “It looks like we’ll see them in court.”

“It’s disappointing that the man who promised to ‘drain the swamp’ just took a massive step away from transparency by refusing to release the White House visitor logs that the American people have grown accustomed to accessing over the last six years and that provide indispensable information about who is seeking to influence the president,” said CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder. “The Obama administration agreed to release the visitor logs in response to our lawsuits, and despite the Trump administration’s worry over ‘grave national security risks and concerns,’ only positives for the American people came out of them.”

National Security Archive director Tom Blanton called Dubke’s claim of national security risks “a White House lie.”

“There is no national security risk to releasing the visitor logs; we have seven years of nearly 6 million Obama visitors that prove no problem. Privacy was protected there, too,” Blanton said. “What’s really going on is the swamp suits Donald Trump just fine.”

Judicial Watch said it was “disappointed” by the administration’s decision, calling it a move “perfectly in line with the policy of the Obama White House to prevent these visitors logs from being processed and released under the Freedom of Information Act.”

“President Trump should simply allow the Secret Service to apply FOIA to its White House visitor logs,” said Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton. “The Secret Service can protect the personal privacy of some visitors while upholding the rule of law.”

“This new secrecy policy undermines the rule of law and suggests this White House doesn’t want to be accountable to the American people,” Fitton added.

American Civil Liberties Union political director Faiz Shakir slammed the timing of the announcement as a “Good Friday news dump” and “not the way to improve the people’s declining trust in this administration.”

“Elected officials work for the people and we deserve to see government business conducted in transparent daylight,” Shakir said. “…The only reasonable conclusion is to believe the Trump administration has many things it is trying to hide.”

As it was two days before Easter, Congress members had already vacated D.C. But Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the sponsor of a bill introduced March 24 to force the release of visitor records from any location where Trump conducts official business, issued a statement calling the White House decision “stunning.”

“What is President Trump trying to hide? Once again, this administration is stonewalling information that Congress and the American people have a right to see,” he said. “Americans deserve to know who has access to the president and who is working to influence policy at the highest levels.”

Udall’s bill, with companion legislation introduced in the House by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), is called the Making Access Records Available to Lead American Government Openness Act — the MAR-A-LAGO Act.