When it comes to full disclosure of White House visitors, big and small, Sean Spicer underscored Monday that the faraway past is now prologue.
Monday’s post-Easter Egg Roll briefing opened with a mix of questions on North Korean’s obvious military belligerence and President Trump’s equally conspicuous administrative opacity.
Several reporters confronted Press Secretary Sean Spicer with the decision not to make public the identities of any visitor to the White House public, and lack of transparency that will inevitably result.
The White House has justified its turnabout from Obama administration policy as a matter of “grave national security risks and privacy concerns.” But that flies in the face of an existing exception that was built into the Obama policy, as has been noted, including by a Washington Post editorial that derided the change and was succinctly titled, “The secret presidency.”
So Spicer was relegated to arguing Monday for the rights of privacy of visitors — he likened that to the lack of formal disclosure about visitors to a congressman’s office — and for the primacy of the past.
Presidents prior to Obama, he said, declined to unveil the identities of visitors. The Obama switch was an aberration, he argued, and even called it a “faux” disclosure policy since it kept mum some visitors based on the national security exception.
So he claimed that the exception proved the policy should be junked, leaving journalists to rely on two different pieces of legislation to make formal after-the-fact (and typically tortuously slow to be fulfilled) requests to find out those identities.
Zeke Miller, a Time magazine correspondent, cited Trump’s frequent campaign invocation to “drain the swamp” in Washington. But now, under the new policy, any symbol of that swamp — such as a lobbyist — can enter the White House and do business “and there is no recourse for the public…to hold the president to account for his promises.”
Again, Spicer alluded to Obama having been an allegedly hypocritical exception and the alternative offered by law to rely on either the Federal Records Act of Presidential Records Act to seek such information:
I think that we recognize that there’s a privacy aspect to allowing citizens to come express their views, and that’s why we maintain the same policy that every other administration did coming up here prior to the last one.
And the last one, frankly, was a faux level of doing that. Because when you go through and scrub everyone’s name that you don’t want everyone to know, that really is not an honest attempt at doing that. We’re going to follow the law the way that every administration has followed up until the last one.
CBS News’ Chip Reid cited the views of ethicists of various stripes in concluding that Trump is proving one of the least transparent president of recent times. Spicer brushed aside that notion, later citing what are by and large rather perfunctory, even pedestrian updates given by his office to the so-called White House daily “pool” on some presidential movements, actions and visitors.
He concluded by erroneously placing the current press frustration in a context of ageless media vs. administration tensions.
“I get that there will always be this back-and-forth, you guys will always want more and I think we’ve tried what we can to get you that information.”
The Obama administration did not cover itself with glory when it came to transparency. But its ambiguous record looks impressive so far by comparison to his successor.