Lack of transparency at Mar-a-Lago, White House raises ethical concerns
On March 24, four Senate Democrats introduced the MAR-A-LAGO Act (Make Access Records Available to Lead American Government Openness Act) requiring the Trump administration to publish White House visitor logs as well as those for the properties in which the president conducts business, including Trump Tower, Trump National Golf Club, and his Mar-a-Lago resort, which he has dubbed his “winter White House.” However, Mar-a-Lago does not have the same system in place for clearing and monitoring visitors as the White House. The Secret Service has stated that it “isn’t equipped…to do the kind of legwork that would be required to produce logs for the president’s clubs,” a fact that makes it difficult to ensure the physical safety of the president, much less keep track of who has the president’s ear.
While visitors to the White House have to undergo an extensive vetting process, visitors and members of the Mar-a-Lago resort– where, as of March 28, the president had spent half of all of his weekends since taking office – only have to give a photo ID. When the president is on the property, guests must pass through several Secret Service checkpoints, but those merely ensure immediate physical safety by screening for weapons or bombs. Ultimately, access to the club, and by extension the commander in chief, is open to anyone who can afford the $200,000 membership fee, or who can get a member to invite them in. This opens the door to a host of national security concerns and, because there is no record of who has engaged with the president and few restrictions as to who can enter the club, to transparency concerns and ethical issues regarding “pay-to-play” lobbying.
The lack of information regarding who is visiting the club when the president is at his winter White House — be it club members, their guests, or guests of the president — not only poses security risks to the president, but it leaves the American public in the dark as to who is possibly engaging with the most powerful decisionmaker in the country.
The Trump administration has ignored calls to begin recording guest activity at Mar-a-Lago, and publish those records. The executive office has also remained mum about whether it will release White House visitor logs, which the Obama administration began doing in 2009 following a series of lawsuits by CREW. CREW sent various FOIAs under the Bush and Obama administrations requesting information on visits by a lobbyist as well as healthcare and coal executives to “determine the degree of their influence” on federal policy. The Bush administration had argued that the records were presidential records and therefore not subject to the FOIA and its disclosure requirements. In January 2009, however, U.S. Chief District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth rejected that argument, which led the Obama administration to provide the requested visitor logs. Nine months after Judge Lamberth’s decision, the Obama administration also began to voluntarily release White House visitor logs on an ongoing basis every 90-120 days. The Obama administration conceded, “Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process.” (Norm Eisen is a co-founder of CREW who served as Obama’s chief ethics lawyer, joining CREW’s board in December 2016.)
The current administration does not seem to recognize that right. So far, the president has not made clear whether his administration will disclose more information about White House visitors. This reticence makes it unlikely that the executive office will take measures to introduce recordkeeping protocol at Mar-a-Lago, or any other place which the president regularly frequents to conduct national business. As such, CREW has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York demanding that Trump’s visitor records be made public. At a time of multiple investigations into Russian influence on the 2016 election and increasing and intense scrutiny on the current administration, knowledge of who is regularly interacting with the president and his aides and staff is especially valuable.