WASHINGTON >> The Trump administration today escalated a battle with government ethics groups by declining, even in the face of a federal court order, to release a comprehensive list of individuals visiting with President Donald Trump at his family’s Mar-a-Lago resort during the two dozen days he spent at the private club in Palm Beach, Florida, this year.
The surprising move by the Department of Justice, which had been ordered in July to make the visitors log public, came after weeks of promotion by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the liberal nonprofit group known as CREW, that it would soon be getting the Mar-a-Lago visitors logs.
Instead, Friday the Justice Department released a State Department list of just 22 names — all of them members of the delegation of the Japanese prime minister — who visited the club in February for a meeting with Trump.
The dispute centers on what kind of records related to private individuals visiting the president should be open to public inspection.
The refusal to disclose the full list of presidential visitors’ names also brings renewed scrutiny to the president’s private business empire and raises questions about why the administration would want to withhold information that could reveal possible conflicts of interest.
CREW and its partners in the effort — the National Security Archive and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University — sued in April to get access to presidential visitor logs for Mar-a-Lago, the White House and Trump Tower in New York. CREW requested only a list of people explicitly visiting the president, not, for example, all Mar-a-Lago members or other guests who happened to be there on those days.
Federal law exempts the White House from the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, which requires public disclosure of government documents. But CREW and its partners argued that because the presidential visitor records are typically maintained by the Secret Service — which is part of the Department of Homeland Security — they should not be exempt from public release.
In July, Judge Katherine Polk Failla of U.S. District Court in Manhattan ordered the Trump administration to release the “records of presidential visitors at Mar-a-Lago” by September.
But the Department of Justice, in a statement it sent to CREW, said it had decided not to release the names of everyone visiting with the president at Mar-a-Lago.
“The remaining records that the Secret Service has processed in response to the Mar-a-Lago request contain, reflect, or otherwise relate to the president’s schedules,” Chad A. Readler, acting assistant attorney general, wrote in response to CREW in a letter dated Tuesday, but delivered Friday. “The government believes that presidential schedule information is not subject to FOIA.”
Noah Bookbinder, CREW’s executive director, said that the organization would challenge the Justice Department’s decision. The Obama administration had faced a similar lawsuit before it decided in late 2009 to start to make visitor logs public, a practice that stopped with Trump’s arrival.
“After waiting months for a response to our request for comprehensive visitor logs from the president’s multiple visits to Mar-a-Lago and having the government ask for a last minute extension, today we received 22 names from the Japanese prime minister’s visit to Mar-a-Lago and nothing else,” Bookbinder said in a statement. “The government does not believe that they need to release any further Mar-a-Lago visitor records. We vehemently disagree. The government seriously misrepresented their intentions to both us and the court. This was spitting in the eye of transparency. We will be fighting this in court.”
Trump visited Mar-a-Lago 25 times between his inauguration and the middle of May, when the club closes for the summer. As with many of the clubs in Palm Beach, it is typically open during the resort area’s high season, which runs from Thanksgiving to after Mother’s Day.
He often brought an entourage of top White House officials with him, even using Mar-a-Lago as a place to meet with world leaders, like President Xi Jinping of China.
Mar-a-Lago membership lists obtained by The New York Times have given a hint of frequent guests at the club. Among the nearly 500 paying members — it costs $200,000 to join the club, plus annual dues — are dozens of real estate developers, Wall Street financiers, energy executives and others whose businesses could be affected by Trump’s policies.
William I. Koch, who oversees a major mining and fuels company, belongs to Mar-a-Lago, according to these lists obtained in early 2017, as did billionaire trader Thomas Peterffy, who spent more than $8 million on political ads in 2012 warning of creeping socialism in the United States.