Biden won’t release White House virtual visitor logs

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Few bars have been set lower than the one Joe Biden has had to clear when it comes to bringing transparency back to the White House. Donald Trump has been an easy act to follow.

But five weeks into office, Biden has fallen short of his former boss, Barack Obama, in several areas, and is under pressure to do more to restore confidence in the federal government following Trump’s chaotic term in the White House.

Among the critiques: The schedules for the president and vice president aren’t posted online. The White House comment line is shut down. There are no citizen petitions on the White House’s website.

The White House has committed to releasing visitor logs. But it doesn’t plan to divulge the names of attendees of virtual meetings, which are the primary mode of interaction until the coronavirus pandemic eases.

And while Biden has received kudos for keeping the American public informed, primarily by resuming the daily White House press briefings, he has yet to hold a news conference of his own.

“The steps they've taken are welcome, but insufficient to the moment and the need,” said Alex Howard, an open government advocate who directs the Digital Democracy Project at the Demand Progress Educational Fund, an arm of a left-leaning group. “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.”

For dozens of good government groups on the left and right, simply not being Trump is not enough. They are now urging Biden to do more, including fixing the very problems in transparency laws that his predecessor’s actions showed need fixing. That includes answering public records requests more quickly; publishing Office of Legal Counsel opinions; revising classification policies; and releasing logs of virtual meetings and physical meetings at other locations where the president and his aides travel.

In recent days, those groups have sent letters to the White House, questioning practices and asking for policy changes. The center-left Brookings Institution issued a new 70-page ethics report that urged more openness to restore trust in democracy after Trump shattered norm after norm.

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

Trump relished speaking directly to the media but closed off access to the government in numerous other ways — from discontinuing the daily White House press briefing and failing to release his tax returns, to occasionally keeping his schedule secret, to refusing to release all visitor logs until forced to disclose some under a court order.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy and a critic of government secrecy, said the Trump administration even stopped divulging the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal — a practice he plans to ask the Biden administration to start again this year.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly stated that Biden and his staff want to bring “truth and transparency back” to the White House.

They’ve made strides: The administration has started posting waivers granted to officials to bypass restrictions on former lobbyists. (The first one allows Department of Homeland Security senior counselor Charanya Krishnaswami to make decisions on the same areas on which she lobbied for her former employer, Amnesty International.)

Intelligence officials released a long-awaited report concluding that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

And the White House has held a briefing every day except for weekends and holidays since Biden was inaugurated. Psaki generally spends about an hour calling on every reporter who attends the Covid-restricted briefings and has even answered some questions from the public on Twitter.

But in other areas they’ve come up short. Biden still has not held a news conference, even after meeting virtually with his first foreign leader, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as is tradition.

President Joe Biden holds a virtual bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Washington. From left, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and and National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden holds a virtual bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Washington. From left, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and and National Security Council senior director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The White House did not respond to questions about certain policies, including the citizens petition and the comment line, but said that Biden is making transparency a priority.

“President Biden committed during the campaign to restoring ethics and transparency to government, and in his first weeks in office he’s taken significant steps to deliver on that, including by reinstating the daily press briefing, putting in place sweeping ethics guidelines for the administration, and pledging to regularly release visitor logs again,” spokesperson Mike Gwin said.

Trump is not the only measuring stick for Biden when it comes to transparency in governance. Obama is too. And on that front, the current president’s record is harder to compare.

On his first full day in office, Obama offered a sweeping promise of transparency, issuing an executive order and two memoranda that made openness the presumption at agencies. Many open government advocates say that Obama fell short of his goals on a host of fronts. But they still say that Biden should have issued a presidential memo on his first day of office to outline his transparency goals.

“That sort of initial announcement at least set the tone formally on paper for the Obama administration,” said Ryan Mulvey, a FOIA expert and policy counsel at Americans for Prosperity Foundation, a nonprofit founded by conservative megadonors Charles and David Koch. “We haven’t seen anything like that yet from President Biden. ... It’s disappointing.”

In addition, Republican lawmakers have complained that Biden rescinded a Trump executive order that mandated agencies post guidance documents that explain policies. An estimated 70,000 documents had been posted since 2019, according to the liberatarian Competitive Enterprise Institute. Some agencies have started taking down the documents.

At a briefing, Psaki said that agencies are not required to take down information and criticized the Trump executive order for creating “unnecessary hurdles and cumbersome processes for agencies that wanted to get guidance out to the public.” In some cases, she said, there was a delay of information being released by a couple of weeks or even a couple of months.

Psaki announced before the inauguration that the White House would bring back the release of its visitor logs — a practice started by Obama eight months into his presidency, when the administration would regularly release and archive visitor logs for its core offices, with exceptions. Trump discontinued the practice, though after a lawsuit he agreed to allow monthly publication of visitor logs for some White House offices, including the Office of Management and Budget.

When Biden pledged to bring the logs back, it was seen as a reversion to the Obama norm. But Covid changed the basic concept of White House visitation and has altered expectations around what should be revealed.

Norm Eisen, who served as Obama’s ethics czar and spearheaded the report from Brookings, where he serves as a senior fellow, said Biden should release virtual visitor logs even though he understands the hurdles to disclosing online meetings, including the lack of a centralized, preexisting list of virtual visitors similar to the one Secret Service keeps for physical visitors. Still, he said the Biden administration could make the distinction to release video meetings for a certain number of attendees or for certain topics.

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

The White House does provide readouts of some of the virtual meetings that Biden and other White House officials host, most recently with groups pushing for gun restrictions. The information, like the president’s and vice president’s daily schedule, is usually disseminated through an email list that has more than 10,000 recipients.

A White House official confirmed it would not release virtual logs. “Virtual meetings will not be subject to release — in the same way that 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,” the official said.

Biden has also yet to restore the popular citizen petition program. Two years into his term, Obama launched the We the People page on the White House website to give the public a voice on what issues he should tackle. If a petition received more than 100,000 signatures it would get an official response within 30 days. More than 38 million signatures appeared on more than 473,000 petitions during Obama’s tenure.

The Trump administration surprised many open government advocates by keeping the page. Dozens of petitions were created, including those urging him to release his tax returns and put his businesses in a blind trust, but many people complained that their signatures were not counted. The entire initiative was eventually abandoned and has yet to return.

The Trump administration was also slow to activate the White House comment line, often used by senior citizens who don’t want to use the website. It abandoned it all together in the last year of his presidency after the coronavirus outbreak, according to a former Trump official. Biden has not restarted it, though it accepts comments online and through the mail. Biden reads some of the letters he receives in a briefing book each night to give him a sense of the national mood, according to the White House.

"President Biden has taken promising first steps toward transparency, including by pledging to release White House visitor logs and the report on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said Anna Diakun, staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, who helped put together a letter to the White House. “But these steps are not enough, and the Biden administration hasn’t yet unveiled any broader plan to make good on its commitment to open government.”