Americans wondering about the visitors getting an audience with Donald Trump at the White House will have to keep wondering: soon after taking office, Trump World decided to scrap Obama-era transparency rules and announced White House visitor logs would be kept secret.
But this president doesn’t just hold meetings with visitors to the presidential residence; Trump also hosts conversations at the Florida resort he still owns and profits from. Perhaps the public can see the visitor logs from Mar-a-Lago?
In July, a federal judge sided with watchdog organizations, which sued to gain access to the information, asking not for club members’ names, but only the names of those who’d met with the president. On Friday afternoon, following a hurricane-related delay, the Trump administration responded to the request, and as the Washington Post reported, it wasn’t much of an answer.
The list had just 22 names, all from the same group of visitors: a delegation of Japanese officials and assistants who accompanied Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on a February stay at Trump’s resort…. Of course, that’s not the full list of visitors to Mar-a-Lago.
Many hundreds of other people entered the club during the days when the president was there. They included club members: Initiation now costs $200,000. Nonmembers, who came for one of the charity galas in the club’s ballrooms. Members’ friends, who joined them on the dining terrace. Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, who famously shared “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake” (in Trump’s words) with the president at the club while U.S. Navy ships were preparing to launch missiles at military installations in Syria.
None of those names were released.
But if a court already sided with the watchdog groups, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the National Security Archive, on the FOIA request, how exactly is the Trump administration choosing secrecy over transparency? The New York Times summarized the basics of the legal dispute:
Federal law exempts the White House from the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, which requires public disclosure of government documents. But CREW and its partners argued that because the presidential visitor records are typically maintained by the Secret Service — which is part of the Department of Homeland Security — they should not be exempt from public release.
In July, Judge Katherine Polk Failla of Federal District Court in Manhattan ordered the Trump administration to release by September the “records of presidential visitors at Mar-a-Lago” that are subject to the open records law.
But the Justice Department, in a statement it sent to CREW, said it had decided not to release the names of everyone visiting with the president at Mar-a-Lago, arguing that many of the records are not covered by the law.
As Trump’s DOJ sees it, the list of presidential visitors “relate to” the president’s schedule, and that schedule is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
So, is this the end of the conversation? Not at all: CREW’s lawyers are reportedly prepared to return to court and argue that the Trump administration did not fully comply with the judge’s decision. Watch this space.
Postscript: The Justice Department recently asked for a delay related to Hurricane Irma, which the federal district court agreed to. If the lawyers only intended to produce a one-page list of Japanese visitors from one event, why did they bother to ask a judge for a delay?
Second postscript: Remember when Trump said Barack Obama was “the least transparent president ever”? That hasn’t aged well.