Trump ‘Gag Order’ Reports Make for Awkward First Impression

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By Tiffany Stecker

Barely a week in office, President Donald Trump’s administration has not made a good first impression with government scientists.

The president’s first Monday in the White House sparked a flurry of leaked e-mails suggesting gag orders on scientific research, freezes on grants and contracts, and the wipeout of climate change information on agency websites and social media at the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior.

It marks the beginning of what will likely be an awkward relationship between the political administration and federal workers.

“I’d say it’s understandable for any new administration to kind of wrap their hands around an organization when they’re transitioning in, but the way they’re handling this is amateurish in my view,” Doug Parker, a former criminal investigation director with the EPA, told Bloomberg BNA.

On Jan. 23, ProPublica reported that the EPA would implement a freeze on issuing grants and contracts, sparking concerns from states and local communities who rely on the money to run local environmental programs.

The same day, reports surfaced that EPA and USDA employees were instructed to hide agency information from the public, suspending press releases, blog posts and social media messages. Stories on Trump’s transition team instructing EPA to take down climate change websites surfaced. Tweets on climate science from the National Park Service’s Badlands National Park were deleted.

Scared Employees

A former EPA political appointee who left the agency on Jan. 20 told Bloomberg BNA that employees fear they will no longer be able to continue their work.

“I think there’s just a lot of unknowns three days in, and people are concerned and nervous about clamping down on information. This hasn’t been inspiring in terms of openness and transparency,” he said.

Since those reports, the transition team and media contacts at EPA and other agencies have tried to roll back the narrative. EPA media representatives began responding to reporters on Jan. 24.

“The EPA fully intends to continue to provide information to the public. A fresh look at public affairs and communications processes is common practice for any new Administration, and a short pause in activities allows for this assessment,” the agency said in a statement. The EPA added that the grants and contracts were placed on hold for review, which is expected to end by Jan. 27.

Doug Ericksen, the communications lead for the Trump EPA transition team, told Bloomberg BNA the administration will make changes to the EPA’s website to reflect the administration’s “tone and direction.” He added that the administration will not take down climate information that would affect the public’s ability to comply or conduct business.

Trump press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Jan. 25 that the National Park Service tweets were published by an unauthorized user with an old password in the San Francisco office.

Be Careful How You Say It

It’s no surprise that Trump has de-emphasized climate change in his administration, said Jim Aidala, a consultant with Bergeson & Campbell PC in Washington, D.C., and former head of EPA’s chemicals division under President Bill Clinton.

But the new administration may have benefited from a more cautious delivery.

“With new leadership, it’s not so much what you’re doing, but you have to watch how you do it,” Aidala told Bloomberg BNA. "[Career employees] will spread rumors. People will call it a gag order when it was really just a stand down order. Things can be interpreted or misinterpreted. When you say ‘Take it down,’ they hear ‘All of this will be reversed.’ You have to be careful about how you say it, not just what you say.”

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have been guilty of leaving bad first impressions, said Aidala.

“You come in and say ‘We’re going to do things differently because the people here don’t know how to do things,’” he said. “You’ve got to be careful. Your success relies on those people.”

Many of Trump’s picks for the transition team have a strong ideological bent that could cloud their understanding of how agencies work, said Parker, who now consults with the Earth and Water Group law firm.

“It seems like a lot of these people have an ax to grind against the agency or come from think tanks. They’ve been thinkers, not doers,” he said.

Scientific Integrity Policies Could Get Scrapped

On Capitol Hill, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) seized on the reports of an information shutdown to criticize the new administration.

“They seem to be happy to be in a fact-free zone,” she told reporters on Jan. 25. “We have always had, whether President Bush, whether Democrat or Republican, across the aisle, we’ve always had a standard where you agree to a set of facts or some number or a baseline, and then go from there.”

But Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) told reporters in Philadelphia that he wasn’t shocked that the Trump’s team would put a gag order in place.

“You have a new White House. They want to control their messages. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the department and agencies get their messages consistent with what the new administration would like,” Dent said.

There are few options for getting government reports if employees are unable to publicize their information.

The most obvious route is the Freedom of Information Act. But the Trump administration could constrain responses to FOIA requests by defunding those offices across the government. Under President Barack Obama, EPA’s FOIA office was “barely responsive,” partly due to the volume of requests it got, said Gretchen Goldman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

With the exception of specific media contacts, Obama’s EPA also forbade employees from speaking openly with reporters.

“Under a censored regime, it’ll be even worse,” Goldman said.

Agency employees also can send out information on their own, using social media. Doing so from a private account is legal, as long as the information isn’t sensitive or protected, said Andrew Rudalevige, a political science professor at Bowdoin College.

The Trump administration approach is very similar to actions under the George W. Bush administration to suppress or rewrite documents deemed contrary to the administration’s policy message, Jeff Ruch, executive director of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told Bloomberg BNA. It is what led President Obama in 2009 to direct agencies to develop scientific integrity policies.

These directives were unevenly developed and enforced at agencies, Ruch told Bloomberg BNA. Obama did not codify the policies through a rulemaking, which would have made it much more difficult for the Trump administration to rescind them.

“Now they can just ignore them or repeal them with a stroke of a pen,” said Ruch.

—With assistance from Brian Dabbs, Stephen Lee, Rachel Leven, David Schultz and Dean Scott.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Washington, D.C. at tstecker@bna.com

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

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