Strengthening Checks and Balances

Indictment Shows Why We Need Public White House Visitor Logs


One of the targets of the first criminal indictment to come out of the investigation into alleged Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election made multiple visits to the White House reportedly as recently as this summer. But those visits, as well as visits by others, are still largely shrouded in mystery because President Donald Trump’s administration rolled back an important transparency reform: the public release of White House visitor logs.

The indictment unsealed on Monday charges former Trump campaign manager Paul J. Manafort, Jr., and his business partner Richard W. Gates III with a slew of crimes connected to their decade of work on behalf of Kremlin allies in Ukraine. Manafort and Gates pleaded not guilty and were placed under house arrest.

Gates joined the Trump campaign with Manafort in the spring of 2016 and stuck around as the campaign’s liaison with the Republican National Committee after Manafort resigned in August while under fire for his connections to Russia, The New York Times reported last year. Gates was also among a small group of former Trump campaign staffers who helped set up American First Policies, a nonprofit created to push the Trump agenda, after the election. He left the group in March as scrutiny over alleged ties between Trump’s team and Russia heated up.

Yet even then, Gates remained in Trump’s orbit. In June, Asawin Suebsaeng and Gideon Resnick at The Daily Beast reported that Gates was working on behalf of Tom Barrack, a long-time friend of Trump and a key campaign fundraiser who led Trump’s presidential inaugural committee. When Barrack came to visit the White House, so did Gates, according to The Daily Beast.

Without the work of journalists like Suebsaeng and Resnick, the public might never have known that Gates was visiting the White House while the Russia investigation was in full swing. Gates’ visits would have flown under the radar because the Trump administration announced in April that it would end an Obama-era policy that proactively released the names of most White House visitors. The Obama administration was the first to regularly disclose such records, and typically released visitors’ names within 90 to 120 days of meetings.

In 2013 a federal appeals court ruled that White House visitor logs are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, with the exception of some offices such as the Office of Management and Budget that are legally defined as separate agencies. However, the Obama administration continued to release White House visitor logs voluntarily after that ruling.

The decision to stop releasing those logs drew criticism from many open government groups—including the Project On Government Oversight. “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,” POGO Open Government Program Manager Sean Moulton said at the time.

The Trump administration is also facing lawsuits from transparency advocates seeking the release of visitor logs to the White House complex and his resort at Mar-a-Lago—which administration officials call the “Winter White House.” The Obama administration’s policy was initially put in place in response to a similar lawsuit.

The Obama policy was far from a perfect oversight tool: it included carve-outs for personal visits and sensitive meetings. It also relied on Secret Service records of who entered the White House complex, so people who didn’t want to show up in the logs could just schedule their meetings elsewhere. But it was at least a step in the right direction that gave journalists, government accountability advocates, and the public more insight into who met with our nation’s leaders.

The Trump administration’s decision to stop proactively releasing most visitor records made the DC swamp even murkier.