President Donald Trump’s opponents have lashed out at the administration for reversing an Obama-era policy of publishing White House visitor logs. But critics who are calling the president’s decision a reversal of transparency are missing a bigger point.
Obama, who promised that his would be the “most transparent” administration in history, obviously lied to the American people about what was actually going on during his tenure in the White House.
And the Obama administration’s decision to make public White House visitor logs public was largely a symbolic one.
Sure, Americans could see a list of people who were at the White House between 90 and 120 days after visits occurred under Obama— but the logs revealed to the public were redacted, or as current White House spokesman Sean Spicer correctly put it scrubbed.
It’s also worth noting that the former president, just like Trump, initially didn’t want any visitor records published at all.
As Mark Rozell, dean of George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, pointed out in a recent contribution to The Hill:
Unfortunately, the president decided only to release lengthy lists of names, with no mention of the purpose of White House visits or even differentiation between tourists and people consulted on policy development.
This action enabled the Obama White House to appear to be promoting openness while providing no substantively useful information. If the visitor log listed “Michael Jordan,” there was no way to tell if the basketball great or a same-named industry lobbyist was the person at the White House that day and the layers of inquiry required to get that information were onerous. But largely because the president had appeared to have reversed himself in reaction to criticism for lack of transparency, the controversy died down, though it should not have.
Much of the current reaction to President Trump’s decision has contrasted that with the action of his predecessor, and claimed that Obama had set the proper standard by opening the books. The reality is different though, as Obama’s action set no standard at all for transparency.
Both presidents have now used “national security” to justify decisions to leave Americans in the dark about who is conducting business in the people’s house.
Trump’s administration deserves at least some credit for being honest, explaining that it will not publish visitor logs at all when it would have been easier to simply continue the Obama-era practice of feigning transparency.
But for a president who campaigned on a promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, that simply isn’t good enough.
Spicer, in an effort to justify the decision to keep secret information about who the president meets, said that the current administration’s policy is consistent with how visitor information is handled in Congress.
“The president wants to make sure that people can come in the same way they can go into a member of the Congress’s office, provide information and details,” he said Monday.
Again, if the mission is to drain the swamp, emulating its most comfortable inhabitants is poor form.
A key argument for folks who support keeping information about who elected officials meet with private is that public disclosure could dissuade prominent people from meeting with government officials.
That’s especially true of prominent people who make bundles of money as swamp dwellers.
If Trump intends to make good on his promise to serve American voters as a Washington outsider with nothing to hide, a decision to emulate Congress and serve the interests of prominent people probably isn’t the direction he wants to go.
Also, not the answer is, as Spicer said Trump is doing, “following the same policy that every administration from the beginning of time [before Obama] has used.”
For that matter, the answer isn’t following the same policy as every person in a position of power since the beginning of time.
And, again, the national security excuse is a tired old trope long used to protect the interests of a powerful few while limiting the rights of the masses.
During the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788, Patrick Henry expressed concern that a powerful central government would do just that in the United States.
At one point, Henry argued:
The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure, when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them. The most iniquitous plots may be carried on against their liberty and happiness. I am not an advocate for divulging indiscriminately all the operations of government, though the practice of our ancestors, in some degree, justifies it. Such transactions as relate to military operations or affairs of great consequence, the immediate promulgation of which might defeat the interests of the community, I would not wish to be published, till the end which required their secrecy should have been effected. But to cover with the veil of secrecy the common routine of business, is an abomination in the eyes of every intelligent man, and every friend to his country.
And there lies the blueprint for a Trump administration truly interested in draining the swamp. Not only should the White House publish visitor logs in full, redacting information involving only the most sensitive national security concerns, but it should implore Congress to enact similar transparency reforms. Any lesser effort to drive transparency should be viewed, to borrow from Henry, as “an abomination in the eyes of every intelligent man, and every friend to his country” who cast a ballot for the current president in November.
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