Have a message for the White House during the government shutdown? Get ready to hear some politicking.
The White House phone line for submitting comments to the president has been set to play a message that blasts Democrats for not making a deal that would keep the government funded and running.
“Thank you for calling the White House,” a cheerful-sounding woman’s voice says in the outgoing message. “Unfortunately, we cannot answer your call today. Congressional Democrats are holding government funding, including funding for our troops and other national security priorities, hostage to an unrelated immigration debate. Due to this obstruction, the government is shut down. In the meantime, you can leave a comment at www.whitehouse.gov, forward-slash contact. We look forward to taking your calls as soon as the government reopens.”
BuzzFeed’s David Mack was one of the first to notice this, and he posted a video of the message on Twitter. (I confirmed that the message is real by calling the line myself. If you’d like to try, the number is 202-456-1111.)
The White House did not immediately respond a request for comment, but the wording is similar to tweet from Trump himself, and a press release that was released yesterday on what it is calling the #SchumerShutdown, to blame the situation on New York Democratic senator Charles Schumer.
Using a publicly-funded phone line to spread such a message raises questions about whether politicizing communication with the executive branch violates the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that prohibits federal employees from acting in a partisan manner. The Hatch Act does not apply to the president and vice-president, but does apply to the federal employees that staff their offices.
Update: Experts tell Quartz that the White House phone line probably doesn’t violate the Hatch Act, but it may contravene the ideals that the law was meant to uphold.
“President Trump is deploying federal resources for pure partisan politics in violation of the spirit of the Hatch Act,” American Civil Liberties Union national political director Faiz Shakir tells Quartz in an email. “More importantly, it sends a signal to the government that rules don’t matter—not in this administration.”
Joyce Vance, a former US attorney and professor of law at University of Alabama, says that the move probably just shows poor judgment, rather than a legal violation.
“What’s so discouraging is that instead of working to solve the shutdown before government employees go to work Monday, the [White House] is focused on vilifying Democrats,” she said.