As Trump sets new priorities for Washington sharply at odds with what the town has seen for the past eight years, some officials working on hot-button issues such as the environment, nutrition and foreign aid are changing the names of offices and programs that might draw skepticism from the conservative Republican leaders he has installed atop agencies.
While entire departments are changing their missions under Trump, many of these rebranding efforts reflect a desire to blend in or escape notice, not a change in what officials do day-to-day — at least not yet, according to 19 current and former employees across the government, and nonprofit officials who receive federal funding.
“I do think it exemplifies a general sense of looking at our programs, looking at the way we characterize our activities, and trying to rebrand or repaint them in ways that hopefully make them less of a target,” said one Energy Department employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely describe the changes inside the government.
The changes in messaging come as Trump and his Cabinet leaders are setting new priorities — and that will increasingly change the operations of most agencies as time goes on and the administration gets lower-level political appointees into top posts.
The Environmental Protection Agency has shifted from enacting climate change regulations to reversing them, while the Energy Department has moved from boosting prospects for renewable energy to promoting President Trump’s fossil fuel-focused agenda. The Trump State Department is aiming to cut spending on diplomacy and foreign aid, and the Agriculture Department has backed away from Obama-era rules to ensure healthy school lunches.
“I think you’re seeing a combination of people trying to stay below the radar so they don’t get whacked, and also trying to morph so they can accommodate what the new administration’s point of view is going to be,” said Adam Cohen, who served as deputy undersecretary for science and energy at the Energy Department from October 2015 until this month.
Some of the most striking examples of rebranding come from agencies dealing with energy and the environment, where references to “climate change” and “clean energy” have sometimes disappeared.
In late April, the Energy Investor Center replaced the Energy Department’s Clean Energy Investment Center, which was founded in early 2016 to help the private sector better learn how to put money into renewable technologies.
Language about the focus on the “clean and alternative” energy market vanished from the program’s website.
Energy spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler said these changes were not ordered by the Trump administration but were made by career staff to “better reflect the broader focus of the project, which includes all traditional and nontraditional energy sources.”
An Energy Department staffer who was not authorized to speak publicly and commented on the condition of anonymity said: “It’s our own career staff. They’re in their keep-their-head-down, ‘maybe they won’t cut our budget’ mode.”
At two other federal agencies — the EPA and the Federal Highway Administration — programs have shifted to talking about “resilience” rather than “climate change.”
The EPA’s Climate Ready Water Utilities site was renamed “Creating Resilient Water Utilities” — even before the inauguration, the timing of which suggests it was unlikely that Trump appointees were involved in the change.
At the Federal Highway Administration, a website focused on the environmental impacts of cars and other forms of-transportation replaced a page addressing “climate change” with one about “sustainability” sometime in January.
Another page, on climate-change “adaptation,” morphed into one titled “resilience,” and the overall program, formerly known as the Sustainable Transport and Climate Change group, was renamed the Sustainable Transportation and Resilience group.
The rebrandings extend beyond the energy and environment sphere.
A key Obama-era initiative at the Agriculture Department called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” which brought together seven farm-to-table nutrition programs, was moved from the agency’s main website to an obscure one within the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, where it appears under the blander “Local & Regional Food Sector.” Instead of highlighting farmers markets, organic agriculture and a “Farm to School” program, the site features “Opportunities for Farmers and Ranchers” and guidance on“Aggregating, Processing and Distributing.”
Development programs, facing potentially drastic funding cuts to international aid, have reframed their missions to de-emphasize Obama-era priorities such as women’s health and climate change and instead play up regional stability and religious freedom in areas where Christians are persecuted.
“Civil servants running data-driven initiatives are trying to figure out how to reframe their work to appeal to a White House that has so far taken an ideologically driven ‘Ready, fire, aim’ approach to understanding many of our federal programs,” said Daniel S. Holt, founder of the Washington-based consulting firm Anchorage Partners and director of public engagement for the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2015 to 2017.
“Staff shouldn’t feel their jobs are threatened by those who haven’t looked into the efficacy of the programs they’re going after,” Holt said. “These are civil servants who have sworn an oath to faithfully do their jobs in service of our country.”
The rebranding has been made easier by a vacuum in political leadership at most agencies, where five months after Trump was sworn in, Cabinet secretaries have few if any of their senior leaders in place. Many of these changes have gone unnoticed as civil servants await policy direction from appointees who have not been confirmed by the Senate or even nominated.
The retooling poses risks. The more overt the changes, the more they leave digital fingerprints that are easily noted in an era in which outside groups and journalists are scrutinizing government sites and data sets for any sign of changes. Reframing can’t escape the Internet archive.
Nongovernmental organizations reliant on federal funds are getting the message, too. One federally funded international aid organization that works in more than 50 countries now highlights its development work as a counterweight to violent extremism and a vital tool to shore up the national security interests of the United States. By stabilizing institutions in volatile parts of the world, the organization is saying to its partners and stakeholders, it is lessening the chance of a mass migration of refugees to the United States — a policy that is in line with the Trump administration’s America-first priorities.
“The work is the same, but it’s a question of talking a little bit more about one thing versus another,” said an official with the group who did not want to draw attention to the organization and spoke on the condition that it not be identified.
Other services that survive on federal funding say they are trying to determine the significance of budget cuts if they do not rebrand.
Domestic violence programs that receive money from the Justice Department and Health and Human Services have traditionally attracted bipartisan support. But bracing for cuts, some advocates say they are shifting their talking points. Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit group that receives federal funding to fight domestic and other forms of violence, is emphasizing its role helping victims of crime instead of violence to better align with the administration’s affinity for law enforcement.
“There were victims on January 18th and there were the same victims on January 20th” when Trump was inaugurated, said Kiersten Stewart, the group’s director of public policy. “Might we highlight certain voices? Of course.”
Career employees are used to changing directions with new administrations. But Michael Termini, chief of staff at the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection group, is still concerned about how government employees are responding to the current environment.
“It’s not somebody telling me, ‘Don’t post that,’ ” he said, “but I’m afraid that if I do, they’re going to pounce. We call that, in the whistleblowing world, a chilling effect.”
Some career employees are simply keeping their heads down. “Managers are actually not moving forward with new material for fear of actually being noticed,” said one EPA employee who was not cleared to speak in public and asked for anonymity.
There are cases that look like outright censorship. The EPA took down its entire climate change website, an informational resource dating back to the Clinton administration, even though climate scientists say it is accurate and career staff resisted the move.
And there are changes that are almost imperceptible. At the Forest Service, the banner atop the website of its Office of Sustainability and Climate Change dropped a single word — “change” — sometime after Feb. 1, according to the Internet Archive. It now says “Sustainability and Climate.”
But the rebranding is pervasive. Even an agency as focused on climate change as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is shifting its messaging.
One marine scientist who works with state and local governments and other groups said that he and his colleagues are playing down climate as a factor in the protection of ocean habitats because they quickly realized that “it’s a hot potato.”
“We’re being encouraged to look at things holistically,” said the scientist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. He described the change in approach as “self-driven, because we’re trying to lay low.”
“We’re trying not to be explicit about climate change anymore,” the scientist said.