Transition Veterans Spar Over Significance of EPA Social Media Ban

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By Brian Dabbs

An ongoing EPA social-media freeze is generating contradicting reactions from veteran transition members on opposite sides of the aisle as Republicans argue the freeze comports with standard transition clampdowns.

All transition teams implement a communication freeze of varying degrees to shore up new agency messaging, veteran Republicans told Bloomberg BNA.

A transition official and adviser on former President Barack Obama’s beachhead team agreed that any agency should prioritize cohesive public relations. But those officials said the ongoing social-media freeze, coupled with long-standing rhetoric critical of the Environmental Protection Agency, creates unprecedented concern among agency officials and the public.

New Media Environment

This presidential transition, which is continuously marked by partisan rancor following a contentious campaign that landed President Donald Trump in the White House, is also the first to grapple with pervasive social media. Because most social-media platforms developed just before Obama won his first election in 2008—with the EPA only creating its Twitter account in May 2008—the ban on social media has little precedent for Trump’s transition team to follow.

A comparison to precedent is therefore shaky, veteran Republicans told Bloomberg BNA.

Still, EPA social media accounts remain dark since a top-down directive called for their discontinuance around Inauguration Day.

The EPA headquarters Twitter handle last shared a post Jan. 19, the day prior to Trump’s inauguration. That post, a blog from departed EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, highlighted the agency’s success in battling Clean Air Act litigation. That was also the final post on the EPA’s Facebook page.

Standard Freeze

Still, environmental groups and Democrats have bashed the Trump administration for the freeze, labeling it more pejoratively a “blackout” or “gag order.”

But those Republican veterans, including Rick Otis, the EPA transition chief under George W. Bush, said the freeze doesn’t mark a departure from the past.

“They aren’t really gag orders. Other administrations have done the same thing, including me in 2001. I would have done it again now,” Otis told Bloomberg BNA.

“I suspect this is the first time some transition-team members have operated in this type of environment, and they probably initially assumed people wouldn’t misconstrue their requests,” Otis, who is currently with the consultancy Earth and Water Group in Washington, added.

None of those interviewed for this article said they had reviewed the memo that called for a social-media freeze. An EPA spokesman didn’t respond to a request for the document.

Jeff Holmstead, an attorney with Bracewell LLP who joined the second Bush’s EPA informally in the weeks following that inauguration, said much of the coverage of the freeze is “over the top.” While cautioning he didn’t want to sound cynical, Holmstead said environmental groups create hysteria in order to gin up opposition and entice fundraising.

“When a new party comes into office, they want to be sure that everything that is done on their watch is done with their support,” Holmstead, who became chief of the EPA Air and Radiation Office under Bush and later joined the transition team for Mitt Romney in 2008, told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s a huge exaggeration to say it’s a media blackout or gag order.”

Communication to Resume Soon: EPA

The agency aims to resume full communications, including social media messages, “as soon as possible,” EPA transition spokesman Doug Ericksen told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 30.

Ericksen said he anticipates Trump’s EPA nominee, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, will be confirmed next week—at which point “things will really start flying.” Pruitt is set for a committee vote Feb. 1.

The agency is continuing to communicate with Congress, and regional offices are disseminating information on Superfund cleanups, wastewater treatment plant updates and other agency activity, Ericksen said. He also said those regional communications don’t need clearance from headquarters. Agency headquarters will be bringing on more communication staff in the coming days, Ericksen said.

Both Republican transition veterans echoed the expectation that social media will resume in the near future. “It’s always a little bumpy in this kind of transition, and it may be a bit bumpier this time around. The Trump campaign was really different, and his transition didn’t have a deep structure,” Holmstead said. “It’s really premature to say what’s going to happen at EPA until Pruitt is confirmed.”

Concern High Among Enviros

Democratic transition veterans strike a different tone, arguing the ongoing social media ban compounds concern among agency employees caused by Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

Trump pledged to dismantle the EPA on the campaign trail, calling the agency the “laughingstock of the world.”

In his testimony before the committee, Pruitt has sought to allay fears. The agency plays a “critical” role in tackling cross-state contamination threats, he said in testimony before a Senate committee.

Jack Darin, a member of Obama’s EPA transition and current Illinois Chapter Director of the Sierra Club, said the social-media freeze marks a poor beginning to the transition.

“Any signals sent in the first days and weeks have magnifying importance. In this current situation, career professionals such as scientists and attorneys, undoubtedly have great concerns, and actions like a freeze in communications could have a chilling effect,” Darin told Bloomberg BNA. He said he’s heard nothing from the EPA regional office, adding that the Great Lakes Restoration initiative could be in jeopardy.

Darin noted that many industry professionals and members of the public rely nearly exclusively on social media.

Meanwhile, Wesley Warren, who worked with the Obama transition as a member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, rejected the notion that the Trump media freeze emulates Obama’s handling.

“This group just seems to be a little bit of a ‘shoot first and aim later’ crowd,” he told Bloomberg BNA. “If there’s adverse consequences of withholding information that the public needs to know, they’re just willing to deal with that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Dabbs in Washington at bdabbs@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

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