Analysis: Why the White House's Secrecy Over Visitor Logs Isn't a Crisis
Had the Trump administration decided to voluntarily release them, officials still would have had free reign to conceal meetings they didn’t want the public to know about.
The Trump administration announced on Friday that it would end the last administration’s practice of making White House visitor logs public, returning to the standard of every president prior to Barack Obama. It wasn’t a particularly surprising move. The president has been remarkably consistent in deviating from good-government norms, including his refusal to disclose his tax returns, his disregard for potential conflicts of interest surrounding his company, and his filling federal agencies with industry lobbyists despite a promise to “drain the swamp.”
Though this latest change seems to fit a larger pattern of governing, the Trump administration has defended itself by citing those decades of precedent. “And frankly,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Monday, “the faux attempt that the Obama administration put out, where they would scrub who they didn’t want put out, didn’t serve anyone well.”
Trump opponents and transparency advocates have nevertheless targeted the logs as an object of outrage. But should they be outraged? While the public should demand some degree of transparency from their government, the White House logs don’t necessarily provide all the information the public would want to know.
When it comes to political-transparency policies, there are always costs and benefits. These measures can give citizens valuable information and deter bad behavior, while also making it harder for officials to deliberate and make deals. They can additionally overwhelm the public with too much information and too little context—leading people to pay attention to relatively unimportant details while missing the bigger picture.
With that in mind, the first step to assessing the value of the logs’ public disclosure is figuring out whether they provide valuable information.
Under the Obama administration, Americans learned about White House meetings with Cabinet members, company executives, lobbyists, and some celebrities. This was hardly revelatory information, fun as it might be to speculate about what Obama and former Daily Show host Jon Stewart discussed. Surely the public would glean similar information about Trump and his team from their visitor lists, if revealed. But the new president is different in one important respect: Unlike most politicians, who have well-worked-out views and ideological commitments honed by years in public life, Trump pinballs through public policy—regularly learning that things are more “complicated” and “not so easy” as he previously thought, and seemingly making decisions based on who he last spoke with. Perhaps more so with Trump than with his predecessors, it appears to really matter who is at the table and who is not, even for ordinary meetings.
In this way, visitor logs could be quite important to showing how Trump’s policies and priorities are being shaped. But it’s less clear whether they would be.
The Obama administration frequently frustrated journalists and government watchdogs by not disclosing some of its most sensitive meetings, or by holding them outside of the White House where the logs would not be made public. Trump officials may have done the same if they hadn’t reversed the Obama-era policy. Because disclosure is so easily avoided, publicly available visitor logs don’t give the full picture of who’s influencing the president. Nor do they seem likely to fulfill another basic goal of government transparency: deterring bad behavior. If a president wants to subject himself to what some observers would consider nefarious influence, there are plenty of ways to do that—public logs or none.
Beyond this shortfall, the Trump administration offered a reason why disclosure isn’t optimal for the White House: The logs’ release would raise “grave national-security risks and privacy concerns.” But is that true—and would it prevent officials from deliberating or getting candid advice?
The short answer, on both counts, would seem to be “no.” Speaking broadly, Americans probably do demand too much public transparency from political leaders, and don’t give them enough space to privately negotiate or seek counsel. But visitor logs are records of which people attend meetings, not what happens at the meetings themselves, so there’s still room for officials to work. There’s no evidence that public logs made it particularly difficult for the Obama administration to get feedback, work out deals, or conduct foreign policy—in part because officials made ample use of privacy and national-security exceptions. The Trump administration could have followed suit, and avoided the very risks officials have cited.
What about the too-much-information, too-little-context problem? It’s virtually impossible to annotate massive spreadsheets of records with full context, and in that vacuum, amateur sleuths can put together their own conspiracy theories about what the president and his staff are up to. The Obama visitor logs produced 5.99 million records and gave rise to plenty of conspiratorial stories—including one about Obama meeting with ACORN, a community-organizing group that activists on the right alleged was little more than a voter-fraud operation. Sometimes, as in the ACORN case, there were false positives—random visitors who happened to have the same names as political figures or celebrities. But that’s what happens when you release information—people draw their own conclusions to support their preexisting beliefs, including their biases against a president.
Politically, the logs may have at times created headaches for Obama’s administration, and may have done the same for Trump. But people spun conspiracy theories about previous presidents without the help of visitor logs.
It’s not clear how much American voters on the whole will care about the Trump policy switch. As president, Obama tried to openly emphasize transparency; he made a bet that voters cared about the issue. Even if he didn’t satisfy all the demands of the good-government community, he won public praise with policies like the Open Government Directive and participation in the global Open Government Partnership.
By contrast, Trump has made a bet that voters ultimately don’t care about transparency and openness in government. Yes, they might say they care in polls and, yes, a majority of voters might have said Trump should release his tax returns. But if voters really cared so much, then why was he elected president? The Trump administration seems to have made the calculation that voters won’t put much weight on the visitor-log policy either. Withholding them could contribute to the larger narrative that the president has something to hide—which has been fueled by the tax-return controversy and his refusal to fully extricate himself from his business. But a lot depends on whether other issues seem more important to voters come the next election. After all, every president before Obama kept the visitor logs closed, and democracy still functioned.
In the meantime, the public can rely on one idiosyncrasy of the Trump administration to learn more about its day-to-day operations: frequent White House leaks. While the Trump administration is far less officially transparent than Obama’s was, there has been thus far considerably more leaking of meeting details, staff infighting, and policy discussions. These revelations are arguably giving the public a much bigger glimpse into the workings of an administration than they’ve had before, and are spurring investigations from the press that have led to shakeups in the president’s staff. The antibodies of democracy are looking strong. And it seems they’ll have plenty to target regardless of how transparent the administration’s policies are.