White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Monday defended President Trump’s decision to keep visitor logs to the White House complex under wraps, saying his predecessor’s policy amounted to “faux” government transparency.
The Trump administration drew criticism from an array of watchdog groups when it announced Friday that it would end the Obama administration's policy of making most visitor logs available on a Web page about 90 to 120 days after visits occurred.
Spicer said the Obama administration would “scrub” the names of any visitors it didn't want to release, which Spicer said was “not really an honest attempt” at transparency.
Spicer's comments, made at a White House briefing, comes as the administration has been under fire on multiple fronts for what critics say is a lack of openness in dealing with the public. Over the weekend, thousands of people marched in Washington and other cities across the nation to protest Trump's continuing refusal to release his tax returns.
Spicer was also peppered at Monday's briefing on that subject and declined to say whether Trump would ever make his returns public, as presidents routinely have done since the 1970s.
With respect to visitor logs, Spicer said Trump was “following the same policy that every administration from the beginning of time (prior to Obama) has used.”
Barack Obama’s policy included exceptions for “sensitive” meetings, including those that raised national security concerns. His White House also declined to release visitors who entered the complex for what they said were purely personal visits to the president or his family members.
“You don’t know who got left off and who didn’t,” Spicer said, calling it a practice that “didn't serve anyone well.”
Watchdog groups that have been pressuring the Trump White House to continue the Obama policy have said the Obama practices were not perfect but should continue.
Several organizations, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed a federal lawsuit last week in a bid to force the Trump administration to open up its visitor logs. The same organization filed lawsuits that led to a voluntarily agreement with Obama in 2009.
In the wake of the agreement, the Obama White House released nearly 6 million logs. It was the first administration to make a practice of routinely releasing the information.
Spicer also argued Monday that the new White House policy is consistent with practices in Congress, where visitors' identities are not routinely disclosed.
“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.
As a presidential candidate, Trump defied recent historical precedent and resisted releasing his tax returns, citing an ongoing audit by the IRS. Critics have argued that releasing his returns would help the public understand any potential conflicts of interests between Trump's business dealings and his powers as president.
On Monday, a day before the deadline for most Americans to pay their 2016 taxes, Spicer said that Trump's most recent taxes are being audited and will not be released.
“It’s been covered before. It's the same thing that was discussed during the campaign trail. The president is under audit,” Spicer told reporters. “It’s a routine audit that continues.”
Presidents and vice presidents are automatically subjected to tax audits by the IRS as a matter of routine practice — a fact that has not stopped previous holders of those offices from publicly releasing their returns. Such an audit does not prevent Trump from automatically releasing his returns. The White House has also declined to provide proof of audits of current and past tax returns.
Asked Monday whether the president would authorize the IRS to confirm the existence of audits involving his returns, Spicer did not answer. Instead, he suggested that voters had made up their minds about Trump's taxes.
“We’re under the same audit that has existed, and nothing has changed,” Spicer said. “The American people understood when they elected him in November.”
Later, Spicer was asked whether the White House would say that Trump would never release his tax returns.
“We’ll have to get back to you on that,” he said.