The Chicago Tax Day rally demanding that President Donald Trump release his tax returns drew large crowds of protesters who joined a half-mile march to Trump Tower on April 15, 2017. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
Accountability should be regarded as more than a buzz word. Our democracy is built on checks and balances so that those who are given extraordinary power are held accountable. But to do that requires more than an occasional press conference, it depends on public disclosure of useful information — or, to use another buzz word, "transparency" — whenever practicable. How else can a president or member of Congress be judged unless Americans have some independent knowledge of what they are up to in Washington?
That makes the latest decision by the White House to cloak President Donald Trump in greater secrecy all the more alarming. First, it was the tax returns that Mr. Trump has so obstinately refused to disclose, now it is the White House visitor logs — the equivalent of sign-in sheets that the Secret Service maintains. Last Friday, it was revealed that the current White House occupant will not follow the practice of his predecessor and make public those logs. Press secretary Sean Spicer defended that decision Monday saying what President Barack Obama allowed, the disclosure of most visitors but the removal of some names, was not helpful to the president or the public.
Such an argument is, of course, rather silly. The Obama White House disclosed 6 million names through its visitors logs over the course of eight years. The Trump White House is planning to release zero. How is that not a step back for government transparency? During Mr. Obama's two terms, the "scrubbed" names often involved personal visitors or those who came for sensitive meetings involving national security. Is it really better to not know the names of anybody, not a single soul who shows up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? This is a bit like saying the Atkins Diet has too many loopholes involving fruit and vegetables so we're going to stick with cake and ice cream instead.
And it's not as if Mr. Obama wasn't sometimes held accountable for visitors. During the Solyndra fiasco, it was widely reported that a major Solyndra stakeholder and Obama campaign donor had made repeated visits to the White House. How did reporters know about George B. Kaiser? Because his name appeared on the White House logs. Reporters ran to that same source when Rep. Devin Nunes revealed he had visited the White House to look at evidence regarding inadvertent surveillance of Trump associates, but they were denied access to the March logs. Now, it appears unless a pending federal open records lawsuit reverses this practice, access won't be granted for years, perhaps five to 12 years after Mr. Trump leaves office.
There's clearly a pattern here, and it's not just about the hypocrisy of Mr. Trump's campaign pledge to "drain the swamp" of Washington conflicting with his current swamp restoration efforts. The president isn't accustomed to the demands of public office, or even the level of transparency required of the CEOs of publicly traded corporations, as his company was privately held. He has a fondness for controlling the flow of information (as every president has), but he's less tethered than most in Washington to ethical conventions. Want to prevent another Solyndra kerfuffle? Well, it can't happen if nobody knows the names of investors or the well-heeled lobbyists who march into the Oval Office to cut their various deals.
Transparency shouldn't be a partisan issue, and, thankfully, there are signs some Republicans in Congress are concerned about all this secrecy as well, at least as rit egards Mr. Trump's tax forms. Here's a leading reason why they should: How can tax reform possibly make its way through the House or Senate if nobody knows what impact it might have on President Trump personally? It's pretty tough to lead with much moral authority when you don't even have enough conviction to reveal your own personal finances as every president since Richard Nixon has.
The visitor logs may not have the same meaning to voters that tax secrecy carries on Tax Day, but maybe they should. Accountability isn't about Americans having just one tidbit of information, it's about having as much information as possible. Mr. Obama's approach was hardly perfect, but it was better than no disclosure whatsoever. If Mr. Trump is as famously sensitive to ratings as people say, perhaps he ought to note this one: The latest Gallup Poll finds for the first time that most Americans don't think the president keeps his promises (45 percent say he will) and even fewer think him honest and trustworthy (36 percent). You don't restore such a loss of public faith by pulling up the drawbridge.