Time magazine reported the Trump administration would not make the White House’s visitor logs public. In addition to keeping the records out of the public eye, the logs will be kept confidential for five years after President Trump is out of office. In the case of a two-term presidency, these records could be kept secret until 2030.
The logs, however, were never really transparent and were subject to censorship by the White House. The Obama administration allowed the White House Counsel to remove any names they didn’t want on the logs.
The announcement by President Trump is a disappointment to both conservative and liberal watchdog groups. The conservative Judicial Watch sued President Obama in 2013 for the release of the records, but the court ruled they were Presidential records and not subject to disclosure. President Obama released edited versions of the logs anyway.
The liberal Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has already filed suit for disclosure of the files, but the lawsuit is not expected to be successful since the prior ruling came from an appeals court.
The Obama administration had a love/hate relationship with the logs. On the one hand, they pledged to be the most transparent administration in the history of the office, but on the other hand, their lawyers successfully fought to keep the records secret.
White House sources said President Trump wants to retain the discretion of seeing people in the White House without disclosing their names. The White House expects criticism for the action. However, the result of the new policy may have no effect at all.
While Obama allowed the records to be released and even posted the names on a special website, he could also remove any names he didn’t want to be made public. This move shielded the names of celebrities and other high-profile personalities. The policy allowed critics of President Obama to question the real transparency of his administration.
Additionally, White House sources pointed out visitors could check a box on the log requesting their name not be publicly disclosed. Anybody who wanted to see the President and keep the meeting a secret only had to ask for privacy. The White House cited privacy of visitors as the reason for the new Trump policy. But, it can be used by lobbyists, big name donors, and other power brokers to keep their names secret.
The new system raises the question of how transparent the White House has ever been. Historically, the Secret Service maintains the records, and until President Obama began the disclosure, they were kept secret. Critics say the Obama administration’s rules created a false sense of transparency since any name could be redacted by request or by the administration.
The other aspect of visitor logs is they only cover the White House and other selected government sites. Visitor logs are not kept for private locations the President may own or visit. So, anybody visiting President Trump at Mar-A-Lago, Trump Tower, or any one of his other various properties doesn’t have to disclose their names.
This escape clause allows lobbyists and other influencers of the President to visit him out of the public eye. Democrats have drafted a new bill, the Making Access Records Available to Lead American Government Openness Act (Mar-A-Lago), which would require the disclosure of records for who visits the President, regardless of his location. It also requires the visitor logs to be updated every 90 days.
Even this act allows for the removal of names of people. Names of people could be removed if, “the posting of which would implicate personal privacy or law enforcement concerns or threaten national security.” Anybody visiting the President for “purely personal” reasons wouldn’t be subject to disclosure. There is no definition of “purely personal.”
Additionally, if the meeting is deemed a “sensitive meeting,” then only the number of people present and location would have to be disclosed. However, even those records could be kept confidential until the President decides they are no longer sensitive. Given the fact Republicans control Congress, it is unlikely this bill will pass.
As it stands, the American public will not see the visitor logs and who visited the White House for a long time.
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