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Who's coming through the White House gate, groups want to know. (Photo: Sarah Ross/flickr/cc)

Facing Stonewall, Groups Sue for White House, Mar-a-Lago Visitor Logs

"This is a case about the public's right to know who wields influence over the most powerful office in our government"

Deirdre Fulton

Watchdog groups are suing the Trump administration (again), this time for failure to disclose records of visitors to the White House and to President Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago and Trump Tower residences.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in New York federal court by Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW), the non-profit National Security Archive, and
the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, charges that the Secret Service—which maintains White House visitor logs—has refused to turn them over in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Secret Service, is named as defendant (pdf) in the suit.

In response to CREW lawsuits, the Obama administration in 2009 agreed to release White House visitor logs every three to four months, with limited exceptions. According to CREW, those logs contained the names of each White House visitor, the dates of their visits, and who requested they be cleared for entry. "Americans have a right to know whose voices are being heard in the policymaking process," then-President Barack Obama said in announcing the policy.

But the current White House "has refused to say whether it will continue to provide public access to White House visitor logs," Monday's lawsuit reads—even despite letters, sent last month from eight U.S. senators to Trump and to U.S. Secret Service deputy director William J. Callahan, seeking a continuation of the Obama-era policy.

"It would be a significant setback to efforts to give the public insight into who influences the White House if this policy were to be discontinued or limited," the letter to Callahan read. "Indeed, given the unique aspects of how President Trump has decided to conduct official business, we believe he needs to do even more just to meet the benchmark of transparency set by President Obama."

Neither Callahan nor the White House has responded to the letters.

Also last month, Democrats in both the House and Senate introduced legislation aimed at compelling the president to release visitor logs for Trump-owned properties where he conducts official government business.

At that point, Trump had spent more than half the weekends since his inauguration at Mar-a-Lago, the resort estate he owns in Florida that his administration has frequently referred to as the "Winter White House." According to the New York Times, as of Monday he'd spent 21 days of his presidency at Mar-a-Lago; this past Saturday, he reportedly "had a friendly chat" there with conservative mega-donors David and Bill Koch. The chat was confirmed by a spokesman for Koch Industries but not by the White House. 

"This is a case about the public's right to know who wields influence over the most powerful office in our government," said Alex Abdo of the Knight Institute on Monday. "In our view, the Freedom of Information Act requires the government to make this information available to the public."

Added CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder: "We hoped that the Trump administration would follow the precedent of the Obama administration and continue to release visitor logs, but unfortunately they have not. Given the many issues we have already seen in this White House with conflicts of interest, outside influence, and potential ethics violations, transparency is more important than ever, so we had no choice but to sue."

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