WH defends transparency after visitor log reversal

Julie Pace
Associated Press

Washington — The White House defended its commitment to transparency Monday amid criticism of its decision to keep visitors’ records secret and new calls for President Donald Trump to release his federal tax returns.

Government watchdog groups argue Trump is preventing the public from learning basic details about his financial ties and blocking information about the groups and individuals that are trying to influence the White House. The Obama administration released 6 million White House visitor records over eight years.

On Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer downplayed those disclosures because national security and law enforcement reasons were used to exclude certain visits — despite the fact that the Trump White House has used national security and privacy concerns to justify keeping all visitor information under wraps.

Spicer said the Obama White House approach amounted to “faux” transparency.

“It’s not really being transparent when you scrub out the names of the people that you don’t want anyone to know were here,” Spicer said.

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.

Trump has long faced questions about secrecy and transparency given his refusal to release his federal tax returns, a decision that broke decades of tradition for both presidents and presidential candidates. White House aides have also provided few details about Trump’s activities and meetings during his numerous weekend trips to Florida.

Thousands of protesters marched across the country Saturday demanding anew that Trump release his tax returns. But the protests did little to change Trump’s thinking: Spicer maintained that Trump was unable to make the information public because he is under audit, despite the fact that tax experts say an audit would not prevent him from releasing his taxes.

Asked whether Trump is simply never going to release his taxes, Spicer said, “We’ll have to get back to you on that.”

The White House defended Trump’s overall approach to transparency, noting that the president often opens portions of his meetings with business executives and other visitors to journalists. He also takes questions from reporters on a fairly regular basis, including during news conferences with visiting foreign leaders.

“We bring people in, we release participant lists, we give press the opportunity to come into the room, see everybody who’s there, hear part of the discussion,” Spicer said.

However, the White House has been tight-lipped about Trump’s activities when he travels to his properties in Florida.