White House Lifts Secrecy of Visitor Logs Cloaked by Trump

President Joe Biden’s White House released its first set of records detailing visits by official guests, returning to a practice set by the Obama administration and dismissed by the Trump team.

The White House disclosed 400 visits during Biden’s first 12 days in office. While hundreds of visitors might have been to the White House complex on an ordinary pre-pandemic day, the sparse logs from the start of the Biden presidency show just how limited in-person activities have been.

A fifth of those listed are members of the Marine Band and the Herald Trumpets who performed on Inauguration Day, and one of the most frequent visitors was an American Sign Language interpreter.

With in-person visits limited, the records released Friday aren’t the same trove of lobbyist, donor and activist names that were disclosed in former President Barack Obama’s logs.

There is one exception: First lady Jill Biden, a longtime teacher, hosted the leaders of the country’s major teachers’ unions on her husband’s first full day in office, January 21. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and National Education Association President Becky Pringle were at the White House along with Miguel Cardona, then the nominee for Education secretary and his wife Marissa, for a live virtual event to honor teachers.

Logs provide the names of visitors to the White House for appointments, official business and, once they resume after a pandemic hiatus, tours.

January Records

The records released on Friday are for January, beginning on January 20 at noon as Biden took the oath of office. One of the most frequent visitors, with seven visits over the 12 days tracked, was Dana Mittelman, a sign-language interpreter.

“As vaccinations increase and the pandemic response continues to make progress, we look forward to welcoming many more visitors onto the White House campus and back into the People’s House,” the White House said in a statement. A White House official said it would not release the names of participants in virtual meetings, noting that past administrations did not publish phone logs.

“It’s great to see these again after four years,” Walter Shaub, the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics from 2013 to 2017, said on Twitter. “I do still wish they’d include virtual visits in these logs.”

Former Trump White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offered the same criticism, tweeting that the release was “a joke” since “almost all of the White House meetings are virtual because of #covid and they will not release any information on those.”

The Biden White House is the first to commit to releasing its records from the president’s first day in office. The Obama White House posted its first set of records online in December 2009 and they dated back only to September 15 of that year, nearly eight months after Obama took office.

White House Exceptions

The Biden White House has carved out a handful of exceptions to its policy that mirror those set by Obama’s staff, restricting the release of records that it says would threaten national security, as well as those related to “purely personal” guests of the first and second families.

The White House is also adopting the Obama rule of withholding records related to “a small group of particularly sensitive meetings,” such as the visits of potential Supreme Court nominees. The administration said it will disclose how many records have been withheld for that reason and release them once they are no longer sensitive. In January, no records fell into that category, the White House said.

Former President Donald Trump’s White House said in April 2017 that it would not release its visitor logs, citing “the grave national security risks and privacy concerns of the hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.”

They will eventually become public. Under the Presidential Records Act, the public can access an administration’s records five years after a president has left office, though a former president can opt to keep them secret for an additional seven years.

Government watchdog groups sued to force the release of visitor logs from the Trump White House and from Mar-a-Lago, but the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that a president could choose to keep the records private. The records rules preclude the Biden administration from releasing the Trump logs, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in February.

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