Trump’s White House on defensive over transparency

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The White House was forced Monday to defend its controversial positions to keep its visitor logs secret and President Donald Trump’s tax returns private.

Despite marches across the country last weekend aimed at pressuring Trump to release more information about his taxes, press secretary Sean Spicer maintained that the White House will not unveil the president’s returns while he is under audit by the Internal Revenue Service.

And under fire over the White House’s decision Friday to buck Barack Obama’s precedent by withholding visitor logs, Spicer said the prior administration was the one with a transparency issue.

The Obama White House shared logs of nearly 6 million visitors, but it withheld names of people it believed were sensitive or personal visitors of the first family.

“Frankly, the faux attempt that the Obama administration put out where they would scrub who they didn’t want put out didn’t serve anyone well,” Spicer told reporters Monday. "It’s not really being transparent when you scrub out the names of the people that you don’t want anyone to know were here.”

The decision not to voluntarily release the logs means Americans won’t see who visits the president until at least five years after he leaves office, and it prompted quick pushback from open-government advocates. But after Trump won the presidency without releasing tax returns, as major candidates have done for decades, the White House appears to be attempting to wait out the critics who want more insight into Trump’s finances and schedule.

“This is not a transparent White House,” Richard Painter, President George W. Bush’s chief White House ethics lawyer, told POLITICO. “He’s nowhere near as transparent as Obama because you don’t have the visitor log, you don’t have the president’s tax return — you don’t have a lot of information."

Painter said he considered Bush more transparent than Trump too because, while his White House did not release visitor logs, his tax returns were public.

Spicer framed the visitor logs decision as a return to the pre-Obama policy and no different than the protocol for lobbyists and others who visit members of Congress.

“You guys are gonna always want more," he said of reporters. "And I think that we’ve tried to do what we can to get you that information."

Critics of the administration say that without Trump’s tax returns, Americans have an incomplete view of his wealth and debts. The New York Times reported in October that the real estate mogul had written off a loss of nearly $1 billion on his 1995 tax returns, allowing him to potentially avoid paying federal income taxes for years. When MSNBC host Rachel Maddow obtained Trump’s 2005 tax returns last month, the White House acknowledged that the president paid $38 million in federal income taxes that year.

Trump repeatedly has refused to disclose his tax returns, citing what he says is an ongoing IRS audit. Spicer said Monday the president’s 2016 returns are under audit, too.

As USA Today reported last week, the president and vice president’s tax returns are automatically audited every year. The IRS has said an audit does not bar a taxpayer from choosing to release his or her tax returns.

“It’s the same thing that was discussed during the campaign trail. The president is under audit,” Spicer told reporters. “It’s a routine one. It continues. And I think that the American public know clearly where he stands.”

Trump dismissed the tax marches Sunday, tweeting that “[s]omeone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies yesterday.”

Asked whether the administration would adopt the position that Trump will never release his tax returns, Spicer didn’t have an answer.

“We’ll have to get back to you on that,” he said.

Spicer said the White House keeps the media abreast of the president’s activities. Reporters travel with Trump on Air Force One, after flying separately during the 2016 campaign. Members of the media also are given brief access to photograph many of Trump’s meetings, and he holds news conferences when major foreign leaders visit.

Still, the White House often does not confirm details such as whether Trump is playing golf when he travels to the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Spicer said Trump is “entitled” to family and private time.

“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.

But even those readouts have come under scrutiny lately. Last week, the White House released a two-sentence, 28-word statement describing Trump’s call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Beijing provided its reporters a 420-word run-down of the conversation. Washington’s release was blunter: “It was a very productive call.”