Psaki announced before the inauguration that the White House would bring back the release of its visitor logs — a practice started by Obama eight months into his presidency, when the administration would regularly release and archive visitor logs for its core offices, with exceptions. Trump discontinued the practice, though after a lawsuit he agreed to allow monthly publication of visitor logs for some White House offices, including the Office of Management and Budget.
When Biden pledged to bring the logs back, it was seen as a reversion to the Obama norm. But Covid changed the basic concept of White House visitation and has altered expectations around what should be revealed.
Norm Eisen, who served as Obama’s ethics czar and spearheaded the report from Brookings, where he serves as a senior fellow, said Biden should release virtual visitor logs even though he understands the hurdles to disclosing online meetings, including the lack of a centralized, preexisting list of virtual visitors similar to the one Secret Service keeps for physical visitors. Still, he said the Biden administration could make the distinction to release video meetings for a certain number of attendees or for certain topics.
“For the Covid era when so much is being done remotely, there should be an accommodation for that,” he said.
The White House does provide readouts of some of the virtual meetings that Biden and other White House officials host, most recently with groups pushing for gun restrictions. The information, like the president’s and vice president’s daily schedule, is usually disseminated through an email list that has more than 10,000 recipients.
A White House official confirmed it would not release virtual logs. “Virtual meetings will not be subject to release — in the same way that previous administrations didn’t release phone logs — but we’re planning on regularly releasing the attendee lists for in-person meetings at the White House,” the official said.
Biden has also yet to restore the popular citizen petition program. Two years into his term, Obama launched the We the People page on the White House website to give the public a voice on what issues he should tackle. If a petition received more than 100,000 signatures it would get an official response within 30 days. More than 38 million signatures appeared on more than 473,000 petitions during Obama’s tenure.
The Trump administration surprised many open government advocates by keeping the page. Dozens of petitions were created, including those urging him to release his tax returns and put his businesses in a blind trust, but many people complained that their signatures were not counted. The entire initiative was eventually abandoned and has yet to return.
The Trump administration was also slow to activate the White House comment line, often used by senior citizens who don’t want to use the website. It abandoned it all together in the last year of his presidency after the coronavirus outbreak, according to a former Trump official. Biden has not restarted it, though it accepts comments online and through the mail. Biden reads some of the letters he receives in a briefing book each night to give him a sense of the national mood, according to the White House.
“President Biden has taken promising first steps toward transparency, including by pledging to release White House visitor logs and the report on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said Anna Diakun, staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, who helped put together a letter to the White House. “But these steps are not enough, and the Biden administration hasn’t yet unveiled any broader plan to make good on its commitment to open government.”