Secrecy on White House visitor logs shows Trump administration allergic to transparency


Trump WH Visitor Records

According to reports by Time, the Associated Press, and many other outlets, the Trump White House will keep its visitor logs secret until 5 years after the end of the administration, discontinuing the Obama administration’s practice of voluntarily disclosing the records online as open data.

Here’s what John Wonderlich, our executive director, told the press about today’s news:

By announcing a return to secrecy for White House visitor logs, the Trump administration has continued to evade public accountability and transparency for the highest office.

While this action is no surprise for a President whose tax returns remain secret, who has proclaimed the free press the enemy of the American people, and who has refused to fully divest from his businesses, the White House’s failure to disclose visitor logs demonstrates again that American leadership on open government will not come from this Presidency.

Congress, the courts, activists and the press will all have to represent our expectations for transparency. President Trump has chosen consistently to conceal and protect his own private interests over public interests. Congress should mandate disclosure of the visitor logs to help hold the Trump administration accountable.

When governments choose secrecy over sunshine, trust in government is further eroded. When the executive branch chooses to conceal public business from the public while at the same time fails to protect the privacy of the public, transparency is applied to the powerless while power is shielded from accountability. That’s precisely the inverse of how democratic government should work.

The rationales cited for this decision by Trump administration officials to the press are weak tea.

For instance, the White House communications director Michael Dubke’s assertion of “the grave national security risks and privacy concerns of the hundreds of thousands of visitors annually” have no basis in the context of nearly six million records released over 8 years without incident.

The three anonymous White House officials quoted by Time make a false claim in describing disclosure of visitor logs as a “facade of transparency.”

Sunlight testified to Congress about the flaws of using a security system as a mechanism for public disclosure, including all of the ways the Obama administration evaded accountability, but it is simply incorrect to assert that disclosure was not a meaningful transparency measure.

For instance, the Obama White House visitor logs showed – which remain online at the National Archives — showed how often Google’s public policy lobbyist visited over 100 times, providing a quantitative measure of the influence of one of the world’s top tech companies.

Similarly, the referenced need for President Trump to receive advice in confidence holds no water. President Barack Obama’s ability to seek advice was not impeded by disclosure of White House visitor logs.

In the context of President Trump seeking and receiving ongoing advice at his private club in Florida or using his phone, free of disclosure or sunshine, the contention that this administration has broken new ground on ethics and accountability is a breathtaking assumption of the language of open government without its substance.

The Trump administration is deep in the shadow of the President’s choice not to hold himself subject to federal ethics laws, disclosing his tax returns or divesting from his global conflicts of interest.

The White House has made no statement or release of the announcement itself today, simply removing the webpage that held a promise of transparency from its disclosures section as if the commitment had never existed.

With this decision, President Donald J. Trump has now established one of the worst records on open government in the first 100 days of an administration in American history.