Watchdog files new lawsuit to obtain White House visitor logs

Watchdog files new lawsuit to obtain White House visitor logs
© Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Public Citizen on Thursday became the fourth government watchdog group to sue the Trump administration over White House visitor logs.

The group sent requests, spanning from April to July, seeking to obtain visitor records for four key offices in the White House.

The Secret Service denied or did not respond to three open-records requests from the organization seeking documents listing visitors to various offices within the White House complex.

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Those records, the Secret Service said, were not subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) — which exempts much of the White House from disclosure — and are property of the White House under the Presidential Records Act.

However, the four offices listed in the request are not part of the Executive Office of the President — White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) — and are thus subject to open-records laws.

“There is exactly one reason the Trump administration aims to keep secret the names of the people visiting the White House: It wants to keep the public in the dark about the corporate takeover of our government,” Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said in a statement on Thursday. “Even so, the Trump White House’s refusal to turn over visitor logs that it knows it is legally obligated to release is particularly shameful, even by the standards of this administration.”

In denying Public Citizen’s request, the Secret Service said it had turned any records over to the White House Office of Records Management — an entity not covered under FOIA.

“The D.C. Circuit has already held that the records we requested are agency records subject to FOIA,” said Adina Rosenbaum, the Public Citizen attorney handling the case, in a statement. “There is no legal justification for the Secret Service to withhold them.”

The Obama administration also resisted disclosing White House visitor logs, but eventually started to release them after several lawsuits, including by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). 

CREW is now a plaintiff in a similar suit against the Trump administration, along with the National Security Archive and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

That one is aimed at the Department of Homeland Security, which houses the Secret Service. It is a broader request aimed at not only the entire White House, but also President Trump’s private clubs in Florida and New York, where he has met with diplomats, world leaders and prominent business executives.

The White House announced in April that it would be withholding visitor logs, citing national security concerns.

Michael Dubke, who then served as the White House communications director, said in a statement saying that records would not be released due to citing “the grave national security risks and privacy concerns of the hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.”

Other officials pinned the reason on loopholes in Obama’s disclosures, which they say undermined the entire transparency effort. 

The names of some visitors — such as personal friends — did not have to be released, and others looking to evade detection, such as lobbyists, simply met with officials at a coffee shop across the street.

In 2012, Trump chastised Obama for fighting against the disclosures. “Why is @BarackObama spending millions to try and hide his records? He is the least transparent President--ever--and he ran on transparency,” he wrote in a tweet.