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White House switchboard takes a stand on shutdown blame

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Before the government shutdown standoff came to an end, there was a robotic voice to weigh in on the politics of it: Callers to the main switchboard of the White House heard a recorded message explaining there were no operators on duty owing to the Democratic “obstruction.” The message was still playing Monday night as the deal to end the shutdown awaited President Trump’s signature.

One expert told Yahoo News it may violate ethics laws.

“Thank you for calling the White House,” a female voice said in the message. “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.”

The message repeated the argument the White House has been making for days — that Democrats were to blame for the shutdown and had endangered the country through their refusal to sign onto budget deals that did not include provisions protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation. Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer ultimately backed a budget deal after his Republican counterpart, Mitch McConnell, promised to address later on the issue of the Dreamers, or those who immigrated illegally to the U.S. as children.

During the shutdown in 2013, which occurred when President Barack Obama was in office, callers to the White House switchboard were greeted with a nonpartisan message.

“We apologize, but due to the lapse in federal funding, we are unable to take your call,” the 2013 message said.

Norman Eisen, an attorney who was Obama’s “ethics czar” from 2009 to 2011, told Yahoo News that the Trump administration’s shutdown switchboard message appears to violate the spirit of the Hatch Act, a federal law that prohibits executive branch employees apart from the president, vice president and other top officials from engaging in political activity.

But Eisen said the office of the special counsel would be “unlikely to take action because no specific candidate is targeted.”

Richard Painter, who served as the chief White House ethics lawyer from 2005 until 2007, during the administration of President George W. Bush, told Yahoo News he doesn’t think the Trump administration should have used the switchboard in this manner because it’s “in bad taste.” However, Painter said he doesn’t believe the message was a Hatch Act violation.

“This is the basic rule of the Hatch Act: You can criticize the Republicans or the Democrats on the Hill for the position they take because they, in their official capacity, identify themselves as Republicans and Democrats,” Painter explained.

Painter noted that Obama “would routinely criticize Republicans on Capitol Hill for obstruction” at official White House events and said the Bush administration similarly criticized Democrats.

“This is sort of par for the course,” Painter said. “Where you cross the line is where you endorse the Democratic Party or attack the Democratic Party as a political organization, or attack a candidate for election, or promote a candidate for election.”

Deputy White House press secretary Lindsay Walters offered a similar interpretation of the Hatch Act when asked about the message by Yahoo News.

“This is just another, of many, examples of so-called ethics experts manufacturing artificial controversies for their own political objectives,” Walters said. “The actual prohibition called for by the Hatch Act is that federal employees may not use official authority to interfere with the results of an election. This is not that.”

Whether or not the message represented an actionable offense, Eisen, the Democratic former White House ethics lawyer, argued that it broke with tradition.

“It is certainly a violation of the longstanding norm that the White House staff (and particularly the nonpartisan career members, such as the person who likely recorded this message) is there to serve and work with all Americans, and not just those who voted for the president. For that reason, we were very careful in the Obama administration about this kind of thing. For example, I made one senior staffer remove an autographed Obama campaign sign from his office in case in made those who had not voted for the president uncomfortable. This recorded message for callers would have been inconceivable in any other administration, of either party,” Eisen said.

Alyssa Mastromonaco, who was deputy chief of staff for operations under Obama from 2011 until 2014 offered a more blunt take when she was asked about the switchboard message on Twitter.

“It’s a f***ing abomination and I cannot believe they made nonpolitical appointee employees [the WH operators] record it,” she wrote.

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