Reversing a policy of the Obama era, the Trump administration announced Friday that it will not release records on visitors to the White House, claiming that doing so would present “grave national security risks and privacy concerns.”
Under the new policy, logs of people entering the White House to lobby or meet with the president or his aides will not be made public until five years after President Donald Trump leaves office.
Watchdog groups on the left and right quickly denounced the decision, arguing it casts a shroud on whom the president is meeting with and what groups are trying to influence him.
“This new secrecy policy undermines the rule of law and suggests this White House doesn’t want to be accountable to the American people,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative group.
“The only excuse for this policy is that the Trump administration has something to hide,” said David Donnelly, who heads Every Voice, a liberal group that tracks influence in politics. “This kind of secrecy will allow big donors, lobbyists and special interests to have unknown levels of influence in the White House.”
White House officials argued that the new policy is needed to help the president meet freely with outside advisers.
Visitation to the White House has been a hot issue for many administrations, but it has been in the spotlight recently because of U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, a California Republican who previously was heading the House of Representatives investigation into the White House and foreign influence.
Last month, Nunes stunned his committee colleagues by revealing that he had seen secret documents revealing that members of the Trump transition team had turned up in legally authorized intercepts of foreign officials.
Days later, Nunes was forced to acknowledge that the documents had come from the White House and he had traveled there to view them. At first, Nunes and Trump had declined to name whom Nunes had visited and who had cleared him onto the grounds. Usually, with some exemptions, such information is in the visitor logs.
Paul S. Ryan, a vice president at Common Cause, said such meetings would be harder to track with Trump’s new policy. In a statement, he called it “the latest example of a disturbing Trump administration pattern of withholding from the public information regarding everything from the president’s personal business dealings and tax returns to his late-night White House visitors like House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes.”
In a statement, White House Communications Director Michael Dubke rejected claims that the administration is attempting to avoid public scrutiny.
“By instituting historic restrictions on lobbying to close the revolving door, expanding and elevating ethics within the White House Counsel’s Office and opening the White House press briefing room to media outlets that otherwise cannot gain access, the Trump administration has broken new ground in ensuring our government is both ethical and accessible to the American people,” Dubke said.
President Barack Obama was hardly a beacon of transparency during his eight years in office, at least in the eyes of open-government advocates. A coalition of groups sued Obama to win release of the White House visitor logs, as some had during the administration of George W. Bush. A court ruled against the Bush administration, which appealed, with no decision before Obama took office. So a lawsuit was refiled, leading to the 2009 settlement.
Obama agreed to a settlement in 2009, prompting the administration to create a web-based search engine that, while clunky, allowed journalists to track the influence of lobbying inside the people’s house.
When Trump came to office, the National Archives and Records Administration stopped paying a contractor to maintain an embedded web application for the Obama-era visitation records. They’re still available at the Obama White House archive, but only on zip files that are difficult to analyze quickly.
For months the Trump administration had held open the possibility of ongoing disclosure for its visitors, but that changed with Friday’s announcement.
Anticipating such an announcement, the National Security Archive and other open-government groups on Monday filed a lawsuit in New York federal court seeking records of White House visits. It also asks for records on who is meeting with Trump at his private properties in Florida and New York.
Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said the lawsuit argues the visitation records belong to the Secret Service, making them agency documents subject to disclosure. There are some exemptions: The Obama administration, for example, was able to withhold the names of CIA agents visiting the White House.
Those exemptions, said Blanton, demonstrate that the previous system allowed for transparency without compromising national security or privacy concerns.
“The excuse the Trump administration is using is misleading,” he said. “It is a lie.”