A government watchdog group sued Thursday to compel the Trump administration to release names of at least some visitors to the White House complex, as was done in the Obama era.
The lawsuit contends that the current administration had planned to be less open about visitor logs but was failing to abide by even that lower standard it had announced in April.
Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group, alleged in the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that the Secret Service has rejected or ignored requests under the public records law for information about visitors to four agencies at the White House complex: the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Council on Environmental Quality.
Public Citizen harshly criticized the withholding of the visitor information, saying the failure to release them flouted a 2013 appellate court ruling and contradicted President Trump’s vows to “drain the swamp” of corrupting influences of money in politics in Washington.
In April, the Trump administration announced that it would not follow former president Barack Obama’s policy of voluntarily disclosing the names of nearly 6 million visitors to the executive complex, including scores of lobbyists. The change, the White House staff said, was because of “grave national security risks and privacy concerns.”
The White House said it would release more limited information and only for requests about visitors to what qualify as separate agencies, such as OMB, under the Freedom of Information Act provisions.
The new policy leaves it to the White House’s discretion about whether to identify visitors who meet with the president, vice president and their senior staff, at least until years after Trump leaves office, when records would be required for disclosure under a separate presidential archives law.
Public Citizen asserts that the restricted release of visitor logs violates a 2013 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that said the Secret Service cannot withhold visitor logs to agencies that are subject to FOIA unless they cite a specific exemption.
“The Trump White House’s refusal to turn over visitor logs that it knows it is legally obligated to release is particularly shameful, even by the standards of this administration,” Public Citizen President Robert Weissman said in a statement.
“There is exactly one reason the Trump administration aims to keep secret the names of the people visiting the White House: It wants to keep the public in the dark about the corporate takeover of the government,” Weissman said.
A Secret Service spokeswoman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
In the lawsuit, Public Citizen alleges that the Secret Service stated that it had transferred the requested records to the White House Office of Records Management, which is not subject to FOIA. The group asked the court to order the security agency to halt the practice and maintain the records of visitors since Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration until the lawsuit can be resolved.
The lawsuit comes about a month after the Secret Service agreed in a separate challenge by watchdog groups brought in federal court in Manhattan to turn over visitor records for the president’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
In his first six months in office, Trump spent all or part of 25 days at his Florida resort, according to a Washington Post tally. His publicly identified guests included Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, discussing, among other matters, strategies for responding to the nuclear missile threat posed by North Korea.
It remains unknown who else Trump or White House officials have met with at various locations.
Litigation continues in the Manhattan case, in which Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the National Security Archive and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University are also seeking White House visitor logs.
The Secret Service’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, also has told the court in the CREW case that it has no records of visitors at Trump Tower in New York City.
Public Citizen attorney Adina Rosenbaum said it filed its lawsuit in Washington because it is where DHS is headquartered.
Obama’s policy was crafted in 2009 in response to lawsuits by CREW.