‘We the People’: White House petitions site still hasn’t been restored

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The White House took down the popular “We the People” petitions website, started by President Barack Obama’s administration, in December, with the promise that the site would be restored by “late January.”

As of 3 p.m. on Jan. 31, the site, which allows citizens to post petitions that require a White House response when they meet a certain number of signatures, is still down.

Among the petitions with the largest number of signatures was one calling on President Trump to release his tax returns — the most popular with over 1 million people signed on — another asking him to put his businesses and financial assets in a blind trust (356,000 signatures), and one that called for him to resign (138,000), all above the 100,000-signature threshold used during the Obama years to initiate a formal response.

The White House has not responded to a petition since Trump took office.

A note posted to the site when it was taken down said it was undergoing maintenance and that when it was put back up, the White House would preserve all of its petitions and begin responding.

The failure to restore the site by a self-imposed deadline represents another mishap for the White House’s digital properties.

The day after his inauguration, Trump’s Twitter feed used a photo of Obama’s inauguration as its background picture. At least five executive orders posted to the White House’s websites in the administration’s early days differed from the legally binding orders in the Federal Register, including two that referred to inaccurate or nonexistent provisions of law, according to a report in USA Today.

Last week, the link to the president’s highly touted “Fake News Awards” redirected viewers to an error page after they were announced on the GOP’s website.

John Wonderlich, the executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes government transparency, said it was another way the Trump administration, at least in its early days, has differentiated itself from the Obama White House, which was known for its digital presentation.

“For Trump’s online constituency, it is not about being tech savvy as much as Trump’s raw right-wing appeal,” he said. “Maybe that’s because the transition wasn’t prepared for anything.” He added that he believed it had started to change as the administration has filled its staff out.

The “We the People” petitions site was launched by the Obama White House in 2011 and has been the subject of fascination for years because of the varied nature of the pleas on the site.

Although the White House under Obama responded to petitions that were popular, it usually did not react. Still, some petitions did lead to changes, however modest, including a new law ensuring that cellphone users could transfer their phones between networks, a call from the White House to end gay conversion therapy for minors and, for baseball player Yogi Berra, a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But more sweeping issues failed to generate meaningful change, such as a petition for a pardon of Edward Snowden that the White House waited two years to respond to before declining, and another calling for stricter gun control that was filed in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Wonderlich described the site as an imperfect but still important resource.

“The office of the presidency doesn’t lend itself that well to mass participation — that’s the gulf that the ‘We the People’ site is trying to bridge,” he said. “I don’t want to overstate its importance, but I think it was a step forward and did make a valuable contribution. If they bring it back, I think that’s a good move. I don’t want to say that makes up for significant shortfalls we’re seeing from the administration.”

The petitions have taken on a new intensity in the Trump era.

In addition to the petition calling on Trump to put his businesses in a blind trust, other leading petitions include one asking for Antifa, an anti-fascist organization that has become a boogeyman for Republicans, to be classified as a terrorist organization (366,000 signatures) and another asking that the liberal financier George Soros, a frequent target of conspiracy theories from the right, be declared a terrorist (152,000).

The president’s personal website does include an online form for people to write in to tell the Senate to “build the wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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