Trump clamps down on federal agencies
BY JORDAN FABIAN - 01/24/17 08:09 PM EST
The Trump administration is clamping down on public communications by agencies as it seeks to assert control over the federal bureaucracy.
New restrictions on social media use and interaction with press and lawmakers at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, Agriculture and the Interior have sparked concerns of a President Trump-backed effort to silence dissenting views.
The Trump administration’s newly imposed communications rules vary at different agencies.
At the EPA, staffers were ordered to stop issuing press releases, blog updates and social media posts, according to a memo to employees. The Agriculture Department’s research arm was reportedly told by its chief of staff to stop issuing news releases, photos and other “public-facing” documents — although the agency disavowed the order late Tuesday, saying that new guidance would replace it.
The new prohibitions come as Trump seeks to reverse many of former President Barack Obama’s policies, which requires the cooperation of a federal workforce that is broadly perceived to be hostile to him.
It’s not unusual for incoming administrations to seek control over agency communications, especially at the outset, when Cabinet secretaries aren’t in place.
But experts on the federal workforce say they have never seen a White House take the type of steps Trump’s administration has to curb public communications.
Green groups worry the moves could signal Trump wants to cut off the public from government information on climate change and other issues.
Liz Perera, climate policy director at the Sierra Club, said the moves “should be a major red flag for all Americans.”
“These actions don’t just threaten scientists — they threaten everyone in the country who breathes air, drinks water and eats food,” said Andrew Rosenberg, an official at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The EPA restriction caught the attention of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who tweeted Tuesday afternoon that the ban on social media and contact with reporters was “very troubling —and honestly, anti-democratic.”
In an apparent act of defiance, the official Twitter account for Badlands National Park in South Dakota on Tuesday afternoon posted information about climate change.
The tweets were later deleted.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters he didn’t know the reason behind the moves but denied it was a concerted effort to silence federal employees.
“I don’t think it’s any surprise that when there’s an administration turnover, that we’re going to review the policies,” he said.
The White House did not respond to a request for further comment, nor did the EPA.
Doug Ericksen, chief spokesman for the EPA’s beachhead team, which is working to transition the agency to its new leadership, also downplayed the changes.
“We’re temporarily dimming some of the communication aspects of the department while we get it under control, to shape the message towards what the new administration would like to be talking about,” Ericksen said.
The spokesman added the changes are likely to be lifted by the end of the week.
“We’ve got 10 regions at EPA, so we’re bringing them in the house for a little bit, then we’ll build them up again,” he said.
The moves come after Trump was reportedly infuriated over reporting on the turnout at his inauguration, which included a viral photo comparison showing Friday’s crowd next to the one that attended Obama’s 2009 swearing-in. The tweet was retweeted by the National Park Service (NPS).
The Interior Department, which oversees the park service, was ordered last Friday to shut down its social media operations. Its accounts were quickly revived over the weekend.
NPS spokesman Thomas Crosson told The Washington Post the tweets were “inconsistent with the agency’s approach to engaging the public through social media.”
Asked to explain the decision, Spicer said, “My understanding is, is that because they had inappropriately violated their own social media policies, there was guidance that was put out to the department to act in compliance with the rules that were set forth.”
The moves have compounded existing tensions between Trump and federal workers. It came as Trump announced a broad federal hiring freeze aimed at reducing the size of the bureaucracy through attrition.
Many rank-and-file federal employees, likewise, are not enamored with their new boss. They preferred Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over Trump by a 2-1 margin, according to a recent Government Business Council/GovExec.com poll.
Twenty-eight percent said they would even consider leaving the federal workforce entirely now that Trump is president.
Activists are concerned that Trump could be looking to limit information that he doesn’t agree with.
The administration also barred EPA staff from awarding new contracts and grants and temporarily suspended new work orders to contractors, the report said, all of which could have a significant impact on the agency’s activities.
Trump has previously dismissed global warming as a hoax “created by and for the Chinese” to stunt U.S. manufacturing.
During the campaign, he raised the prospect of backing out of the Paris climate agreement brokered by Obama. His pick to lead the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has led lawsuits against Obama’s climate policies.
“I am, to a large extent, an environmentalist; I believe in it. But it’s out of control,” Trump told reporters Tuesday.
Ericksen, who currently serves as a Washington state senator, said the restrictions on grants and contracts is a way “to understand what money’s going out of the EPA right now, to make sure it reflects the priorities of the new administration.”
Timothy Cama contributed.