WASHINGTON — Breaking with the practice of President Donald Trump’s predecessor, the White House is keeping secret the lists of visitors to the building.
The Trump administration cited privacy and national security concerns on Friday, but the decision angered government watchdog groups who accused Trump of reneging on his promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington. The groups see the visitor logs as important tools for monitoring which individuals or groups may be trying to influence White House policy. Trump has been widely criticized for a lack of openness in refusing to release his tax returns, breaking with decades of precedent.
Senior White House officials argued that the decision to keep the logs secret is in line with what previous administrations have done, except for President Barack Obama’s, and that continuing Obama’s practice of voluntarily releasing the records could interfere with policy development.
White House communications director Michael Dubke said Trump has taken steps to improve the ethical climate in Washington, such as imposing new restrictions on lobbying by departing administration officials and opening the White House press briefing room to outlets that previously didn’t have access.
He said the decision was based on the “grave national security risks and privacy concerns of the hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.”
But Judicial Watch, a conservative legal advocacy group which has sued administrations of both parties over the visitor records and other matters, argued that Trump should allow the Secret Service to release the logs under the Freedom of Information Act, which would allow sensitive details to remain private. The White House says the records are exempt from the law.
“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, the group’s president.
The Obama administration initially fought attempts by Congress and conservative and liberal groups to obtain visitor records. But after being sued, it voluntarily began disclosing the logs in December 2009, posting records every three to four months. It continued to release the records even though a federal appeals court ruled in 2013 that the logs can be withheld under presidential executive privilege. That unanimous ruling was written by Judge Merrick Garland, whom Obama later nominated to the Supreme Court.
Ultimately, nearly 6 million visitor records were released, though certain visits were excluded, including for national security or law enforcement reasons. That meant the records provided an incomplete account of who passed through the White House gates.
The Trump administration’s decision to keep the records secret means no documentation of any White House comings and goings will be routinely released while Trump is in office, though officials said information could be released case by case.
However, visitor logs for White House agencies, such as the Office of Management and Budget and the U.S. Trade Representative, may be released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Robert Weissman, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said, “The only reason to keep secret the White House visitor logs is to hide from the American public the corporate influence-peddlers who are seeking favors and gifts from the White House.” He said more secrecy will breed more cronyism, insider dealing and corruption.
Three government watchdog groups sued this week to try to force the Trump administration to reinstate the public release of the logs. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the National Security Archive and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University cited freedom of information laws.
CREW said Friday’s decision was disappointing, given that Trump repeatedly promised at his raucous campaign rallies to “drain the swamp.”
“The Obama administration agreed to release the visitor logs in response to our lawsuits, and despite the Trump administration’s worry over ‘grave national security risks and concerns,’ only positives for the American people came out of them,” said Noah Bookbinder, the group’s executive director. “It looks like we’ll see them in court.”
Associated Press writer Stephen Braun contributed to this report.