In September 2009, in response to four pending lawsuits brought by CREW for White House visitor logs, President Barack Obama announced he would begin opening up the logs to the public on a regular basis by posting online the names of visitors over the previous 90 to 120 days. As implemented, the posted records included names of visitors, the dates and times they entered and left the White House compound, and the names of the persons they visited (or at least who was requesting they be cleared for access). Publication of the logs was subject to several exceptions, including purely personal guests of the Obama family, the need to protect national security interests, and the temporary need to protect particularly sensitive meetings, such as the vetting of a Supreme Court candidate.[i]
In announcing the new policy, President Obama recognized the “right” of “Americans” to “know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process.”[ii] When he left office, President Obama’s administration had released under this policy 5.99 million records of White House visitors.[iii] These records helped inform the public about the range of influences brought to bear on the president. For example, one news report that examined records from an “unremarkable” day in January 2012 revealed the “regular presence” of lobbyists at the White House, with “lobbyists with personal connections to the White House enjoy[ing] the easiest access.”[iv]
On April 14, 2017, the Trump White House announced it no longer would provide public access to visitor logs, an announcement that in the words of the New York Times “return[s] a cloak of secrecy over the basic day-to-day workings of government.”[v] White House officials largely justified this decision on national security grounds,[vi] even though the Obama White House released the vast majority of its visitor records with no evidence the disclosures raised any national security concerns, or indeed any concerns at all beyond, at times, showing the Obama White House in a less than flattering light.
As commentators have pointed out, this “claw back” of transparency by the Trump administration fits into a larger narrative about a White House intent on concealing from the American public what it is doing and why.[vii] President Trump has set the tone by refusing to release his taxes, a refusal that carries over from the campaign when he also refused to release a full medical history and documentation of his charitable donations.[viii] At a time when the president and his top advisors are relying extensively on outside opinions and input to formulate policy, this latest announcement about the sealing up of visitor records erects one more barrier to transparency and the public accountability that it brings.
[i] See, e.g., Peter Baker, The White House Will Disclose Visitor Logs, New York Times, Sept. 4, 2009, available at https://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/04/the-white-house-will-disclose-visitor-logs/.
[iii] The White House, More Than 5.99 Million Records Released, Dec. 30, 2016, available at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/30/more-599-million-records-released.
[iv] T.W. Farnam, White House Visitor Logs Show Lobbying Going Strong, Washington Post, May 20, 2012, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2012/05/20/gIQA2ok4dU_story.html?utm_term=.8ce1ea60fbaa.
[v] Julie Hirschfeld Davis, White House to Keep Its Visitor Logs Secret, New York Times, Apr. 14, 2017, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/14/us/politics/visitor-log-white-house-trump.html.
[vii] See, e.g., James Hohmann, The Daily 202: What Does Trump Have to Hide? Secretive White House Unapologetic About Clawing Back Transparency, Washington Post, Apr. 17, 2017, available at https://www.washington