The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Presidents don’t track private house guests. Some want that to change.

Public access to who has visited the White House is a relatively new and tenuous practice. It’s never been the norm for private residences.

President Biden speaks from his home in Wilmington, Del., with Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2021. (Adam Schultz/White House/AP/AP)

After classified documents from the Obama administration were found at President Biden’s Delaware home, top Republicans demanded to see a visitor log for the private residence. A White House spokesman responded that no such log exists because “like every President across decades of modern history, his personal residence is personal.”

Even as disclosure norms have increased in Washington over time, it’s largely up to a president to decide whether the public knows whom he meets with, either at the White House, a personal home or elsewhere. Government watchdogs pushing for more transparency have had success in getting the Obama and Biden administrations to voluntarily release visitor logs from the White House, albeit with a months-long delay and notable omissions.

But no president has ever been required to track or announce who visits their private residences.

Visitor logs for the White House and other federal buildings can provide insight into the day-to-day work of an administration, revealing which celebrities grace their events and which lobbyists, activists and policy experts are welcomed for counsel.

But there are no laws that require a White House to open visitor logs to the public, and it was not routine for administrations to regularly publish their logs until the Obama administration did so in its first year.

“Visitor logs admittedly are not a silver bullet. You can meet people at the Starbucks across the street from the White House, there are ways around it. But it is really useful for reporters and researchers alike,” said Lauren Harper, the director of public policy and open government affairs at the National Security Archive, a watchdog group at George Washington University.

Official White House visitor logs are considered presidential records and therefore exempt from requests under the Freedom of Information Act, leading media organizations and government watchdogs to push for access to documents such as Secret Service security access logbooks to gain insight into White House happenings.

“It’s entirely up to each president what they want to release,” said Jordan Libowitz, a spokesperson for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. “Congress should have a requirement that the president release the logs. There’s always going to be a delay, but the shorter the delay the better.”

The Clinton and George W. Bush administrations both fought lawsuits from watchdogs over visitor logs by arguing that publishing the records would hurt their ability to conduct daily business. And while the Obama administration was initially praised for its move to greater transparency, watchdog groups and media organizations quickly noted its voluntary system was easily manipulated to hide high-profile or controversial guests.

A 2013 federal appeals court ruling found that White House visitor logs are shielded under presidential executive privilege. The judge who wrote the unanimous court ruling, Merrick Garland, is now Biden’s attorney general.

The Trump administration ended releasing visitor logs in its first few months in power, citing “the grave national security risks and privacy concerns of the hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.” Watchdog groups called the move preposterous and regularly sued to publish the records, leading to a trickle of Trump-era logs over its four years.

Shortly after taking office, the Biden administration resumed the Obama-era policy of publishing visitor logs several months after meetings occur. Biden also ordered the National Archives to release the Trump White House’s visitor logs to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. The Trump logs probably didn’t include virtual meetings or those held at Trump’s private properties around the globe.

The presidency is an all-consuming job; the main office of the nation’s leader also serves as his primary residence. The arrangement naturally brings tension between public accountability and personal privacy. When presidents leave the confines of the Oval Office for favorite hideaways and private residences, official business often follows, an informal necessity that watchdog groups say Trump exploited during his presidency.

In 2020, a federal judge ruled that Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort did not have to release records of who visited the Florida estate because it was a private residence, not a government facility. The decision frustrated watchdog groups and Democrats at the time who noted that Trump often hosted events with influential donors, political allies and foreign dignitaries at Mar-a-Lago beyond the reach of normal public oversight.

“What you really had were people who were paying for access to the club at Mar-a-Lago, paying to have access to the president, which is the antithesis of the way democracy should run,” said Harper, whose organization was a plaintiff in the case.

Biden spends most weekends at his Wilmington home, where he visits with family and attends his local church.

“The president is never truly off the clock,” said Libowitz, whose group was also a plaintiff in the Mar-a-Lago lawsuit. “In the case of an emergency, the president does need certain information available to him. So there’s always a certain amount of work that goes back and forth. But there’s a difference between the president taking a briefing book to read over and holding high-level meetings with dignitaries.”

There has been some push on Capitol Hill to increase transparency around who has access to the president and other top government executives. In the Trump era, Democrats introduced legislation that would have forced Trump to publish White House visitor logs. Republicans now vow to investigate Biden over improperly stored documents and demand visitor logs from the property despite the White House saying no such records exist.

Watchdog groups, meanwhile, hope that greater public scrutiny of visitor logs at places like the White House will eventually lead to codified rules on disclosure.

“What we’d really love to see is not just a listing of the people who showed up in person but a combination of in-person, phone logs and of video chat logs. That way you have a complete list of everyone who had access to the president or senior officials,” Libowitz said.

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