President Trump’s staff refurbished an Obama-era petition service and then forgot about it, leading to a curious platform afterlife led by demands to seize Hong Kong and “impeach” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
The Trump administration has not responded to petitions in nearly two years, and the service hosted on the White House website rarely attracts attention anymore from journalists. But throngs of petition-signers still seek Trump’s support.
One petition on the “We the People” platform requests that Trump turn Hong Kong into a U.S. protectorate. It recently crossed the 100,000-signature requirement to earn an official response.
Hong Kong “is a city of important strategic position that President Trump should look into!” the petition says.
Nearly three dozen other petitions with 100,000 signatures focus on Hong Kong. Though the petition site was intended for U.S. citizens, there’s no easy way to ensure that.
The anti-Pelosi petition requests her removal for “treason,” though there is no legal mechanism to impeach a House speaker. The petition gained traction before Pelosi agreed in September to launch impeachment proceedings against Trump.
“The White House does not respond to petitions anymore, so there is no longer any value in the site,” said Dave Karpf, a professor at George Washington University who has followed the evolution of the site.
“It’s yet another indicator that the current White House does not value transparency or open government. But that evidence is abundant — the White House also doesn’t hold press briefings anymore,” Karpf said.
The petition site relaunched in Feb. 2018 after switching vendors as part of a broader White House website overhaul said to save $3 million a year. White House officials feared negative press if they killed the service and said it was relaunched out of a commitment to transparency. But just seven responses were issued.
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Creating a petition during the Obama administration was a reliable springboard onto cable news, allowing the administration to amplify a political message and letting petition-creators generate a new angle on trending news. It sometimes was criticized as propaganda or unserious, but defenders saw the site as a way to facilitate citizen engagement with leaders.
At its height, the Obama White House responded in 2013 to a popular petition demanding construction of a Death Star spacecraft and credited a petition with helping create momentum for 2014 legislation that requires cellphone-service providers to unlock phones so they can be taken from one provider to another.
Tom Cochran, who led the Obama White House technology team that created the petition site in 2011, said, “It’s deeply disappointing that it’s not being used the way it was meant to be, though, at this point, I can’t say that I’m surprised.”
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