The Environmental Protection Agency is under unprecedented scrutiny, with an almost daily drip of news reports about regulatory rollbacks, questionable expenses by Administrator Scott Pruitt, and ethical scandals large and small, including one involving Pruitt’s use of staff personnel to search for his favorite skin moisturizer.
What’s a press office to do? In the EPA’s case, the answer has been to play offense.
Flouting normally polite Washington conventions, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox has sometimes fought back in the most combative — and rudest — terms. “You have a great day, you’re a piece of trash,” he told a reporter from the Atlantic magazine last week after she sought comment for an article about the departure of an EPA employee.
Such an insult is unusual given that government public-affairs specialists typically try to work with, not against, the news media, even when they don’t like the reporters or the coverage.
Wilcox called another reporter, the Associated Press’s Michael Biesecker, “anti-Trump” and “dishonest” in an email exchange last week. Which was actually a lot nicer than the extraordinary news release the agency sent out last fall about Biesecker after he documented the EPA’s inattention to Superfund sites in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. “Despite reporting from the comfort of Washington, Biesecker had the audacity to imply that agencies aren’t being responsive to the devastating effects” of the hurricane, the release said. It added that Biesecker “has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story.”
More recently, Wilcox accused New York Times reporter Eric Lipton of seeking to “steal” the work of other news outlets after Lipton emailed EPA press staffers to confirm some details in their stories. This was after Wilcox’s predecessor, Liz Bowman, had accused Lipton of peddling “elitist clickbait” last year. (A Times spokeswoman defended Lipton, saying, “the public would know much less” about the consequences of the EPA’s deregulatory efforts without his reporting.)
The press shop’s aggressive tone has been paired with some aggressive behavior, too.
Two weeks ago, an EPA security guard grabbed a reporter by the shoulders and pushed her out of the agency’s headquarters. Ellen Knickmeyer of the Associated Press and two other reporters had sought to cover a public meeting but were kept out, ostensibly because the meeting was at capacity (photos from the event showed plenty of empty chairs in the meeting room). Guards refused to grant Knickmeyer entry and ushered her out after she asked to speak to a press aide. An EPA official later apologized to Knickmeyer.
Of course, President Trump and the White House have been harshly critical of reporters, too. But perhaps no federal agency has mixed it up with journalists quite like the EPA’s communications pros.
People familiar with the department say its antagonistic approach is guided by Pruitt, who has been the subject of many negative stories and is facing more than a dozen federal investigations of his conduct. They note, for example, that Wilcox wasn’t disciplined by Pruitt for his “piece-of-trash” comment to Atlantic reporter Elaina Plott. Outside of the apology to Knickmeyer, no regrets have been issued (Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg, on the other hand, dinged Wilcox as “a classless flack” on Twitter).
At the same time, the agency has tried to plead its case to more receptive media outlets, although not always successfully. John Siciliano, a reporter for the conservative Washington Examiner, said this week the agency’s press staff has tried to pressure him into writing stories favorable to the agency. When he declined, they complained to his editors, he said.
“It was a really bizarre pressure play on their part that I’ve never experienced from an agency, a Cabinet-level agency, to enforce an agenda on a journalist,” Siciliano said during a panel discussion in Washington.
Wilcox — a 35-year-old Republican political operative who took over as EPA spokesman after Bowman and two other colleagues left the job — declined to be quoted on the record for this story. He agreed, however, to meet with a reporter within minutes of being asked last week.
Reporters say the agency’s press officers can toggle between aggressive . . . and passive-aggressive. “The trajectory for me is that they went from pretty helpful to [more combative] to more intentionally nonresponsive,” said Corbin Hiar, a reporter for E&E News, which covers energy and environmental policy.
Press officials at first pushed back on some of his stories, and then they became unavailable, with “long periods of silence from them.” Hiar was also turned away from the water-contamination meeting last month, despite making repeated requests to cover it.
People familiar with the agency’s press operation say it has been plagued by turnover and burnout, some of it born of dealing with Pruitt’s constant scandals and his difficult management style. On days when a new controversy pops up — such as last week’s revelation that Pruitt employed his security detail to hunt down his preferred hand lotion — the office will be besieged by as many as 75 calls from news outlets seeking comment.
The spokesmen often learn of some new Pruitt imbroglio from the reporters who have unearthed the story, making it difficult to plan a response or get ahead of each issue. Several used the same word — toxic — to describe the working environment.
These people say Pruitt can also be indifferent about dealing with the press, especially when it comes to controversies of his own making. When he does interviews, they say, he doesn’t spend much time preparing, which may explain why his comments about Trump’s position on climate change to Fox News’s Chris Wallace last year and Ed Henry in April generated criticism from both left and right.
Another tactic appears to be misdirection. In an apparent effort to take the media heat off Pruitt last month, EPA press staffer Michael Abboud reportedly peddled damaging stories to news outlets about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Pruitt rival. The would-be gambit appears to have backfired; White House officials privately expressed their anger over it to Pruitt’s top aides, according to the Atlantic. (Wilcox formally denied the story to the magazine; a spokeswoman for the magazine said it stood by its reporting.)
In any event, Wilcox’s behavior is the subject of an unusual Freedom of Information Act request filed on Monday by the Associated Press. The news agency asked the EPA to turn over emails between Wilcox and senior EPA administrators, including Pruitt, and between Wilcox and White House officials.
The organization is seeking the records to learn whether Wilcox has been acting as “a rogue federal employee” or at the direction of Pruitt or the White House, AP news editor Ted Bridis wrote in the request.
“In his capacity as press officer for the EPA, Mr. Wilcox is not simply disagreeable or hostile,” he wrote, “he at times actively impedes the ability of news organizations to report coverage objectively.”
Asked again for comment on Thursday, the EPA spokesman declined to speak on his behalf.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Corbin Hiar did not receive an explanation for why he was kept out of a water-contamination meeting.