The White House’s “visitor logs” were made public for the first time in history in 2009 by then-president Barack Obama, reversing the policy of his predecessor George W. Bush, who fought battles in court to keep the information private.
The Trump administration appears to be going in the opposite direction, however, and has not made visitors logs public. Now a citizens watchdog group, a political analyst, and Columbia University are suing the Department of Homeland Security (pdf), after the department didn’t respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.
“When foreign officials go to see the president or his staff, the American people have a right to know who and when,” said Kate Doyle, the political analyst, who first filed a request about the Trump administration’s meeting with a visiting Mexican delegation days after the inauguration. The Secret Service has not responded to any FOIA requests, the suit says.
The White House website’s page for “Visitor Access Records” says only that the page is being updated, and that “it will post records of White House visitors on an ongoing basis, once they become available.” The lack of transparency extends to other areas of the White House as well. There is also no information on the pages on salaries or “ethics pledge waivers.”
Under the US Presidential Records Act, however, the administration must retain all the information “created or received by the President, the President’s immediate staff, or a unit or individual of the Executive Office of the President whose function is to advise or assist the President” that relates to presidential duties. That includes all:
books, correspondence, memoranda, documents, papers, pamphlets, works of art, models, pictures, photographs, plats, maps, films, and motion pictures, including, but not limited to, audio and visual records, or other electronic or mechanical recordations, whether in analog, digital, or any other form.
That information is the property of the US government, not the president’s or his advisors’, and an administration can only delete records after getting written permission from the Archivist of the United States.
The current archivist, David Ferriero, is a career librarian who took the job in 2009, after serving as the director of the New York Public Library. The position is traditionally a political appointment, but the Trump White House has yet to name a replacement.
Under the Obama order, some guests who visited the White House were exempt from identification, including “purely personal guests of the Obama family,” any guest whose identity “would threaten national security interests,” or was involved meetings that were sensitive at the time, like those involving “the vetting of a Supreme Court candidate.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer claimed before Trump took office that the administration already was the most transparent of any “modern president,” in part because of a live camera in Trump Tower that broadcast who was visiting during regular working hours.
But that camera has since been shut down, and the Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, where Trump has spent eight of his 11 weekends in office, doesn’t keep standard visitor logs or run State Department-quality background checks of guests.