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For Now, Secrecy Trumps Transparency at the White House

Picture of the White House Gate

When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer boasted during the transition that the Trump Administration had exceeded any modern president in regards to transparency, the open government community raised a collective eyebrow, but went into the new administration optimistically.

We didn’t have to wait long to find out how deep the Trump Administration’s commitment to openness goes: not very deep at all.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has decided they will not disclose the names of visitors to the White House, citing “national security risks and privacy concerns.” And it’s safe to assume that will include the names of those who drop in at the “Winter White House,” Mar-a-Lago.

That means well-heeled lobbyists don’t even have to bother sneaking in through the back door of the White House. They can just walk in the front door like they own the place.

Sean Moulton, POGO’s Open Government Program Manager, says not providing the visitor logs is a giant leap in the wrong direction:

“The Trump Administration hides behind national security as its reason for not proactively releasing White House visitor logs. However, such concerns were resolved by President Obama. Hiding information behind the American flag is a political move and one likely requested by White House visitors who would rather come and go in darkness. The public has a right to know who its leaders are meeting with as they make decisions about which direction to take our country. It doesn't matter who holds the highest office, there should be transparency and accountability for their actions. The visitor logs, while far from perfect, helped provide that check and balance.”

President Obama famously promised to be the most transparent president in history. But in between prosecuting whistleblowers and spending a lot of money and time fighting Freedom of Information Act requests, he hid government activities from the public. However, here’s what President Obama did do: He opened White House visitor logs to the public and made them accessible through a searchable website, which became a powerful ethics and accountability tool.

We hold out hope that the Trump Administration might yet make good on its promise of greatness when it comes to transparency.

We hope he reads the open letter we sent him last month with some suggestions on how to achieve this. In short, we suggested that the president:

  • Open the visitor logs to the public
  • Put an end to “secret law”
  • Shine a light on our rigged campaign finance system
  • Better protect future whistleblowers
  • Slow the revolving door

We would love to see a commitment to taking these steps as the President’s 100th day in office nears.

By: Elizabeth "Liz" Hempowicz
Policy Counsel, POGO

Photograph of Elizabeth Liz Hempowicz is Policy Counsel for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Open Government

Related Content: FOIA, FOIA Fridays

Authors: Elizabeth "Liz" Hempowicz

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