At some point during the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations, the White House comments phone line, 202-456-1111, was shut down. If you call the line today, you’ll hear the following message directing you to comment via one of two alternate channels:
The comment line is currently closed, but your comment is important to the president, and we urge you to send us a message at whitehouse.gov/comment or send us a message through Facebook Messenger.
The shutdown of the phone line has sparked criticism that the move reflects the Trump administration’s “diminishing accountability.” But the phone line was actually closed during the final weeks of the Obama administration, and it seems possible that it’s a temporary victim of the Trump administration’s larger transition struggles: White House press assistant Giovanna Coia told the LA Times earlier this week that White House staff is “still learning how to work our computers.”
What’s more notable at present is that the Facebook Messenger option callers are presented with after dialing the closed phone line doesn’t actually seem to exist.
The recording doesn’t say which of the government’s official Facebook accounts callers should visit in order to access Messenger, but neither the White House Facebook page nor President Trump or Vice President Pence’s Facebook pages currently appears to have Facebook Messenger enabled.
And as Variety points out, “To add insult to injury, there are currently a number of third-party Facebook accounts that operate under user names wrongfully suggesting an affiliation with the White House,” some of which do use Messenger.
Vox was unable to locate an official administration page that does have Messenger enabled. Meanwhile, a Facebook spokesperson referred Vox to the White House for all comments regarding changes to the White House’s Facebook account, and the White House did not return a request for comment.
It appears the public’s only current option for sending comments directly to the Trump administration is to fill out a form on the White House website’s official contact page. But despite the likely possibility that the comment phone line being down is a byproduct of the transition, the narrowed communication outlet hasn’t gone over well in a tense political climate where many view its closure as a sign that Trump wants to exert severe control over government communication and transparency.
The current shutdown of the comments line doesn’t mean Trump is purposely trying to avoid feedback from the public
The White House’s public phone line has been a staple for decades, dating back to at least the first Bush administration. However, there’s historical precedent for a temporary closure, as the line has gone unstaffed during at least one other presidential transition. When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, his administration reportedly didn’t realize at first that the public comment line, which was traditionally manned by volunteers, would need to be newly re-staffed.
Under the Obama administration, the White House kept the comment line open, staffing it with interns in the Office of Presidential Correspondence. In August 2016, President Obama also invited people to use Facebook Messenger to get in touch. Just two months later, the White House Facebook account unveiled Facebook’s first government-specific bot to use with the service. (For its part, Facebook worked with the website GovLoop to develop a set of communication guidelines for government agencies, urging government agencies to use the platform to “initiat[e] two-way conversation with citizens.”)
It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will eventually embrace Facebook Messenger as a way to accept feedback from the American public. But given the history of the comments line, it’s hard to imagine it won’t return at some point.
Still, the line’s closure hasn’t stopped some people from finding new ways to make themselves heard in the wake of a particularly contentious election. A new website called Comments to Trump is aiming to provide a more easily accessible forum, noting:
The White House phone line won't take comments. The White House website might. But you can post your comments here. You thereby avoid joining the White House email list or any other email list, and you make your comments public! ... Please make your comments polite, concise, and concrete. We will make sure that the White House is aware of them.
Of course, no one can guarantee the White House will be listening.