When it comes to political-transparency policies, there are always costs and benefits. These measures can give citizens valuable information and deter bad behavior, while also making it harder for officials to deliberate and make deals. They can additionally overwhelm the public with too much information and too little context—leading people to pay attention to relatively unimportant details while missing the bigger picture.
With that in mind, the first step to assessing the value of the logs’ public disclosure is figuring out whether they provide valuable information.
Under the Obama administration, Americans learned about White House meetings with Cabinet members, company executives, lobbyists, and some celebrities. This was hardly revelatory information, fun as it might be to speculate about what Obama and former Daily Show host Jon Stewart discussed. Surely the public would glean similar information about Trump and his team from their visitor lists, if revealed. But the new president is different in one important respect: Unlike most politicians, who have well-worked-out views and ideological commitments honed by years in public life, Trump pinballs through public policy—regularly learning that things are more “complicated” and “not so easy” as he previously thought, and seemingly making decisions based on who he last spoke with. Perhaps more so with Trump than with his predecessors, it appears to really matter who is at the table and who is not, even for ordinary meetings.
In this way, visitor logs could be quite important to showing how Trump’s policies and priorities are being shaped. But it’s less clear whether they would be.
The Obama administration frequently frustrated journalists and government watchdogs by not disclosing some of its most sensitive meetings, or by holding them outside of the White House where the logs would not be made public. Trump officials may have done the same if they hadn’t reversed the Obama-era policy. Because disclosure is so easily avoided, publicly available visitor logs don’t give the full picture of who’s influencing the president. Nor do they seem likely to fulfill another basic goal of government transparency: deterring bad behavior. If a president wants to subject himself to what some observers would consider nefarious influence, there are plenty of ways to do that—public logs or none.
Beyond this shortfall, the Trump administration offered a reason why disclosure isn’t optimal for the White House: The logs’ release would raise “grave national-security risks and privacy concerns.” But is that true—and would it prevent officials from deliberating or getting candid advice?
The short answer, on both counts, would seem to be “no.” Speaking broadly, Americans probably do demand too much public transparency from political leaders, and don’t give them enough space to privately negotiate or seek counsel. But visitor logs are records of which people attend meetings, not what happens at the meetings themselves, so there’s still room for officials to work. There’s no evidence that public logs made it particularly difficult for the Obama administration to get feedback, work out deals, or conduct foreign policy—in part because officials made ample use of privacy and national-security exceptions. The Trump administration could have followed suit, and avoided the very risks officials have cited.