SEE NO EVIL

Sean Spicer: Lobbyists Deserve Privacy When Visiting the White House

The newest excuses for not releasing White House visitor logs range from protecting the rights of influence-peddlers to blaming Obama.

Reuters

President Barack Obama did not release the names of every visitor to his White House, so President Donald Trump will not release any at all.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Monday that President Donald Trump’s predecessor “scrubbed” the logs of names they did not want to be made public, and therefore that there was no reason to release any list of visitor names.

“This is the policy that’s existed from the beginning of time since [logs] were kept through the last [administration], and that last one was a faux attempt,” Spicer said. “They would scrub whoever they didn’t want to put out.”

The decision not to release White House visitor logs was made last week.

Publicly posted Obama White House logs were indeed missing the names of thousands of visitors, including a number of lobbyists and campaign donors. But they did include the names of tens of thousands of guests in entries that informed a number of critical stories about the administration, including some by the most vocal Trump supporters in media.

Spicer cited the Obama White House’s omissions to defend the current administration’s decision to keep the public entirely in the dark about the individuals meeting with top White House staff.

The White House promised that visitor logs would be forthcoming on a since-deleted page of its website. On Friday, it announced that it was scrapping transparency data tools used by the previous administration and abandoning plans to release similar visitor logs.

Spicer told reporters that Americans have a right to make their voice heard at the White House without their identities, or the names of officials hearing their concerns, being publicly listed.

“We recognized that there’s a privacy aspect to allowing citizens to come and express their views,” Spicer said. “There’s an opportunity for the American people who want to have a conversation and be able to share their view” to do so without being publicly identified.

Spicer’s comments came amid increasing scrutiny of former lobbyists now employed in the administration who have been secretly exempted from ethics rules that would bar them from taking meetings with their former colleagues in the influence business.

The lack of visitor logs will also make it more difficult to determine when private individuals in the government or public relations business seek access and influence that does not trigger lobbying reporting requirements.

Reporters pressed Spicer on those points on Monday in light of Trump’s campaign pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington and root out official corruption and special interest influence.

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“Members of the swamp can walk into the White House and there’s no recourse to the public to hold them to accountability,” one reporter pointed out.

The White House has insisted, and Spicer reiterated on Monday, that its decision to keep visitors secret is an attempt to safeguard information that might compromise national security information or violate the privacy of individual visitors.

But even as the Obama administration released unprecedented records on the individuals who visited the White House, it reserved the right to remove information from visitor logs on privacy and national security grounds.

Despite their official commitment to transparency, Obama staffers found ways to get around visitor reporting requirements for meetings that might look unseemly or embarrassing. Staffers began meeting lobbyists at a coffee shop across the street from the White House in order to avoid public disclosure of the meetings.

But even that “faux” commitment to transparency, as Spicer characterized it, resulted in a wealth of information on people seeking White House access - information that will no longer be publicly available.

The White House is currently facing federal litigation over its refusal to release visitor logs. The group bringing the open records lawsuit, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also sued the Obama White House for visitor records early in that administration.

The Obama team released that information voluntarily in order to resolve that lawsuit, but that didn’t occur until about seven months into the administration.

With four months to go until the same point in his presidency, Trump still has a chance to be more transparent than his predecessor.