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White House

On taxes and visitor logs, White House grapples with transparency questions

 (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

The Trump White House defended its record on transparency Monday despite two glaring cases in which its practices fell short of those of the Obama administration.

In his first briefing since the administration said it would no longer release logs of visitors to the White House, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the White House was simply returning to a policy that had been in place until President Obama took office. He dismissed the disclosures made by the last administration as a "faux attempt" at transparency.

The Obama administration, starting in September 2009, voluntarily began releasing records each month of who had visited the West Wing or other offices in the executive complex. There were exceptions, though, for visits deemed to be purely personal or for highly sensitive purposes, including some national security discussions or interviews of candidates for positions like Supreme Court seats. 

"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," Spicer said.

"And the last one, frankly, was a faux level of doing that, because when you go through, and you scrub everyone’s name out that you don’t want everyone to know, that really is not an honest attempt at doing it."

Separately, Spicer also said President Trump would not release his 2016 tax returns, citing the same justification the campaign had offered for not releasing filings from previous years: They are under audit.

"I think the president’s view on this has been very clear from the campaign, and the American people understood it when they elected him in November," Spicer said two days after a series of demonstrations across the country called for the president to release his tax records.

Although Trump has long claimed his 2015 returns were under audit -- something the IRS as a policy does not confirm -- it is guaranteed that his 2016 filings will be. As USA Today noted last week, all presidents are subject to audit under Internal Revenue Service practice dating back decades. That fact hasn't stopped past presidents from releasing their tax returns.

On the issue of visitor logs, Obama administration officials believed they never got the credit from the public or the press corps that they believed they deserved for what was a new policy at the time. In 2016, then-Press Secretary Josh Earnest wrote a letter to the New York Times claiming that the policy was just one of several ways in which they were fulfilling Obama's promise "to lead the most transparent White House in history." 

At the very least, though, Obama's administration set a standard to which their Republican successor now is being held.

Reporters asked Spicer on Monday about the verdict of some ethics experts that the Trump administration was already the least transparent in decades. He disagreed, citing what he said was increased access reporters have to official events. 

"I think we’ve done a fairly good job of making sure that people know who he’s meeting with, who he’s speaking to, and when appropriate, the contents of those calls," Spicer said in his 30-minute briefing, one far shorter than the ones typically held in the Obama administration.

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