Trump Administration Politicizing White House Comment Line Is ‘Punch in the Gut,’ Former Obama Official Says

The Trump administration’s use of the public White House comment line to blame Democrats for the government shutdown this weekend was a “punch in the gut” for what was intended to be a "non-political" office, according to a former Obama administration official.

Darren Martin ran the White House comment line during the Obama administration and during the last government shutdown in 2013. He spoke to Newsweek about the precedent the move set, saying it politicized one of the only non-political offices in the White House.

"We were one of the very few White House offices that were not political," Martin said. When the Obama administration faced its own government shutdown in 2013, Martin was at the comment line's helm and had to plan his own strategy for what the voicemail would sound like during a shutdown. Using the line to express an agenda about Republicans (whom Democrats blamed at the time for the shutdown) "wasn’t even a question for us," Martin said. 

Instead, the voicemail said something along the lines of, "Due to the lapse of appropriations, the White House comment line is currently closed," and offered the number for the White House switchboard instead. 

01_22_Trump_White_House U.S. President Donald Trump (L-R), joined by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, senior advisor Steve Bannon, Communications Director Sean Spicer and National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, speaks by phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office at the White House on January 28, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The comment line took in about 1,000 to 2,000 calls per day, usually 50,000 per month, when Martin ran it from July 2013 to July 2015. It's been around for decades, and was meant for Americans to call and ask questions about the White House's stances, or share their own opinions about what the president is doing (or not doing). It's one of the few direct connections Americans have to the administration, and, historically, the office has tried to maintain political neutrality. It falls under the scope of the Office of Presidential Correspondence, which also takes constituent feedback in the form of letters and emails and handles presidential gifts. 

On Saturday, the comment line, at 202-456-1111, set a new precedent when it used the voicemail to blame Democrats for the government shutdown, a move that Slate first reported. On Monday, callers got a busy signal, but a White House source said the message was still operating, likely busy because of high call volume. The message said on Saturday: 

“Thank you for calling the White House. Unfortunately, we cannot answer your call today because 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 for the president at www.whitehouse.gov/contact. We look forward to taking your calls as soon as the government reopens.” 

Martin said he was "afraid of the new precedent" the White House comment line had set. 

"It's one of the very few [non-political] resources Americans have,"  he said. "If you think of government in its most basic form and take politics out of it, folks are supposed to petition the government."

The White House did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.