WASHINGTON ― White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended the Trump administration’s decision not to disclose the White House visitor logs online on Monday by blaming the Obama administration for not being transparent enough.
“We’re following the law as both the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act prescribe it,” Spicer said. “So it’s the same policy that every administration had up until the Obama administration. And frankly, the faux attempt that the Obama administration put out where they would scrub anyone who they didn’t want put out didn’t serve anyone well.”
As for the argument that the public deserves to know who is meeting with the president and his staff ― whether lobbyists or dignitaries ― Spicer turned it on its head. “We recognize that there’s a privacy aspect to allowing citizens to come express their views,” he explained.
In all, the statement was a head-spinner, if only because it boiled down to a declaration that the current administration would be less transparent than the prior administration because the prior administration wasn’t transparent enough. But beyond that twisted logic, there was also a general misconception about the Obama White House’s visitor logs.
Investigations showed that the logs were poorly maintained and often contained holes. But multiple Obama aides pointed out that the scrubbing was done for several openly declared reasons. Names were kept off the list if they were personal family visits or involved particularly sensitive government matters (a potential Supreme Court nominee or a national security-related meeting). This did mean the logs were not entirely complete. Obama officials also had a propensity to host meetings at nearby coffee shops to avoid the logs entirely.
But the notion that the previous administration ducked all embarrassing revelations is wrong. Reporters routinely used the published visitor lists to write stories critical of the Obama administration. The logs were used to tell the story of how the White House crafted a deal with the pharmaceutical industry to gain support for Obamacare, to show how airline lobbyists influenced the White House during merger talks, to provide detail about the growing influence of Google in government, and to show the steady flow of CEOs and lobbyists coming to the White House.
And Spicer should know that since, after all, the Republican National Committee often used the visitor logs to attack President Barack Obama when Spicer was serving as RNC communications director. For example, here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here.
“President Obama’s visitor log policy was never perfect, but that fact provides the Trump administration no excuse whatsoever for abandoning the policy that had broad, bipartisan support,” said John Wonderlich, executive director at the Sunlight Foundation, a pro-transparency nonprofit.
Spicer was right in one regard on Monday. He noted that the Trump administration would be following the pre-Obama precedent for maintaining visitor logs. The previous White House was the first to actually post those logs online for the public to review. The policy was instituted early in the Obama administration as a fulfillment of his campaign pledge to bring transparency to government. From the get-go, it was clear that the system had flaws. Millions of visitors’ names were published over the course of eight years. But there were painfully few ways to sort through them, the logs included multiple people who didn’t end up going to the White House, and the database could produce false positives ― a visitor with the same name as another.
At the time, Trump was critical of Obama for not going further, arguing on Twitter that he was hiding something. Now in the White House, Trump has clawed back the progress ― however marginal ― that Obama made.