Biden criticised for falling short of Obama on transparency after failing to release White House virtual visitor logs

Gustaf Kilander
·3 min read

The Biden White House is being criticised for failing to clear the bar of transparency set by his former boss President Barack Obama. The Biden administration has committed to releasing visitor logs detailing those who visit the White House but not the virtual logs showing who attends White House meetings online.

Virtual meetings are the primary mode of operations at the White House, and it will probably stay that way until the pandemic recedes. The White House is also being criticised for not posting Mr Biden's nor Ms Harris' schedules online, for the White House comment line being shut down, and for the White House website lacking citizen petitions.

The Biden administration has been lauded for upping the standard of press relations after four years of President Trump being overtly hostile to the media. The daily press briefing is back, and Mr Biden has taken part in a CNN town hall and he has done several interviews with individual reporters. But he's also getting pushback for not holding a press conference during his first month in office.

Alex Howard, director at the Digital Democracy Project at the left-leaning Demand Progress Educational Fund, told Politico: “The steps they've taken are welcome, but insufficient to the moment and the need. They need to keep ‘showing their work’ by opening Cabinet meetings, disclosing information and using political capital to emphasize that being ‘open by default’ isn't just an option but an obligation across the government.”

Good government groups across the political spectrum are urging the Biden administration to fix the transparency issues that became apparent during Mr Trump's years in the White House. Mr Biden is being pushed to respond to public records requests faster, publicising opinions from the Office of Legal Counsel, updating classification policies and releasing logs of meetings, both virtual and physical, both in and out of the White House.

A report on "restoring federal government ethics and rule of law" from the left-leaning Brookings Institution said that "on paper, the [Freedom of Information Act] holds great promise, but it has rarely lived up to that promise. Its command for a 20-business-day response remains elusive; many agencies rarely respond within two months, and for some, the wait exceeds years, not days".

Read more: Follow live updates on the Biden Administration and the Trump post-presidency

Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics and now a fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, told Politico: “We have now learned the system was too weak. And we’ve been through four years of having to battle tooth and nail to get any documents and we need [Mr Biden] to set up new systems so the next administration will follow them.”

Obama’s ethics czar and Brookings senior fellow Norm Eisen told Politico that the White House should release virtual visitor logs even if he understands the problem this presents. The Secret Service keeps records of all those who come and go at the White House, and similar records for those who visit virtually doesn't yet exist. He added that the administration could release those who attend meetings under a certain number of participants or those who take part in meetings on certain topics.

“For the Covid-era when so much is being done remotely, there should be an accommodation for that,” he told Politico.

A White House official said: “Virtual meetings will not be subject to release in the same way that the previous administrations didn’t release phone logs, but we’re planning on regularly releasing the attendee lists for in-person meetings at the White House."

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