Visitor logs at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort remain a mystery

They were hoping for extensive visitor logs from President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

Instead, government watchdog groups got a list of 22 Japanese officials who had joined their country's prime minister at the property during a February trip.

It's the latest setback for advocates trying to make public information on who has access to the president.

The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the National Security Archive and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University had sued the administration for access to the logs, arguing that the public had a right to know who interacted with the president at the private property that Trump often refers to as "the winter White House." Trump made seven trips to Mar-a-Lago earlier this year.

The Department of Homeland Security agreed this summer to hand over records related to the property's visitors in September. Homeland Security oversees the Secret Service, the agency charged with protecting the president.

But Justice Department officials argued in a letter to CREW released Friday that any records beyond the 22 Japanese names were related to the president's schedule and were therefore exempt from public records laws.

"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. The government believes that Presidential schedule information is not subject to" the Freedom of Information Act, they wrote.

CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder described the move as "spitting in the eye of transparency."

"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. The government does not believe that they need to release any further Mar-a-Lago visitor records. We vehemently disagree," he said in a statement.

"The government seriously misrepresented their intentions to both us and the court," he said, adding that group would be fighting the decision in court.

The groups have also been seeking information about visitors to the White House and Trump Tower. DHS has said in response to the lawsuit that it has no records about Trump Tower.

The White House announced in April that it would not be making public the logs of visitors to the White House complex, breaking with the practice of Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama.

The Obama administration released White House visitor logs beginning in September 2009, after four lawsuits by CREW.

Seeing the names of people who come and go can help the public understand who has the ear of the administration on important policy matters. But senior White House officials cited privacy and national security concerns and said continuing to release the records could interfere with policy development, among other things.

Taxpayers were billed at least $1,092 for stays at Mar-a-Lago, the Washington Post first reported Friday. A receipt in that amount for a two-night stay in March, obtained by the advocacy group Property of the People through a public record request of the U.S. Coast Guard, is another example of how the president stands to profit from the presidency.


Associated Press writer Bernard Condon contributed to this report from New York.