Trump should open White House visitor logs, but don't flatter Obama
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President Donald J. Trump’s decision to wall off White House visitor logs from public inspection has elicited strong protests from media and public interest organizations that promote government transparency. These protests are on firm grounding. Although governments have occasional and legitimate secrecy needs, in a democratic-republic the presumption generally is in favor of openness and the public certainly has a right to know with whom the president and staff are consulting on policy.

Much can be learned about the president’s priorities and what goes into policy decisions by accessing records of those who visit the White House. It is also deeply meaningful to know whether the president and staff are consulting various perspectives on critical issues or whether they only are listening to those who support existing positions. Knowing who are the major influencers of policy is a critical component of public knowledge about the operations of their government.

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In fairness, the Trump White House decision to close off the visitor logs needs to be put in the proper context of his predecessors’ actions. In 2009 President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaFord taps Obama, Clinton alum to navigate Senate hearing McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination Presidential approval: It's the economy; except when it's not MORE initially made the same decision as Trump.

 

Obama, recall, had campaigned on a promise to conduct the most transparent administration in history and yet upon assuming office his administration refused multiple requests to view White House visitor logs. As had happened in the George W. Bush years, public interest groups and media organizations requested access to the logs in order to fully disclose the names of persons with whom the White House was consulting on policy development.

In refusing these requests, Obama effectively adopted the approach of his predecessor, which had led to some of the most contentious political and legal battles during the Bush administration over government secrecy.  Like Bush, Obama relied on the argument that the daily visitor logs are presidential records and thus are not available for anyone to review. There is indeed a long standing practice of presidents claiming that certain White House communications — and by extension, the names of those with whom the president and staff communicates — are either privileged or generally off-limits to public inspection.

Obama’s action clearly violated his own pledge of transparency and an outpouring of criticism of his action somewhat made a difference. He later reversed his position when he announced that indeed the White House visitor logs would be made public after all.

Unfortunately, the president decided only to release lengthy lists of names, with no mention of the purpose of White House visits or even differentiation between tourists and people consulted on policy development.

This action enabled the Obama White House to appear to be promoting openness while providing no substantively useful information. If the visitor log listed “Michael Jordan,” there was no way to tell if the basketball great or a same-named industry lobbyist was the person at the White House that day and the layers of inquiry required to get that information were onerous. But largely because the president had appeared to have reversed himself in reaction to criticism for lack of transparency, the controversy died down, though it should not have.

Much of the current reaction to President Trump’s decision has contrasted that with the action of his predecessor, and claimed that Obama had set the proper standard by opening the books. The reality is different though, as Obama’s action set no standard at all for transparency.

Yet President Trump promised to be open and to overturn many of the actions of his predecessor in order to give the government back to the people. So the outpouring of criticism of him is based not only on the continued quest for achieving the promise of open government — something that has proven elusive from one presidency after another — but also on the very fundamental commitment that the president himself made in his campaign for the office he holds.

Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He is the author of the book Executive Privilege (University Press of Kansas).


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