Trump administration officials instructed employees at multiple agencies in recent days to cease communicating with the public through news releases, official social media accounts and correspondence, raising concerns that federal employees will be able to convey only information that supports the new president’s agenda.
The new limits on public communications appear to be targeting agencies that are charged with overseeing environmental and scientific policy, prompting criticism from officials within the agencies and from outside groups focused on climate change.
The Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Agriculture and Interior departments now have formal policies restricting what they should convey to the public about their work.
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said he and his colleague were “looking into” whether the administration had changed the way many agencies share information publicly.
“I don’t think it’s any surprise that when there’s an administration turnover that we’re going to review the policies,” Spicer said, “but with respect to the question you’re asking, I don’t have information at this time.”
Many new administrations — including former president Barack Obama’s — have moved quickly to take control of the U.S. government’s public relations machinery and centralize decision-making upon taking office. But the sweeping nature of some of the new controls is unusual, and the fact that they come as departments have been communicating through an array of digital platforms has made the changes particularly visible.
The moves also underscore the kind of skirmishing that could continue to take place between incoming political appointees and civil service employees.
At the EPA, for example, communications staff received a memo instructing them that “no social media will be going out” and “a digital strategist will be coming on board” to oversee it. It added, “Incoming media requests will carefully screened.”
According to a former agency official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, members of Trump’s EPA landing team spent significant time asking about who controlled the department’s communications levers, especially regarding social media.
EPA’s numerous social media accounts appear to have fallen silent since Trump’s inauguration, with the lone exception of the agency’s Office of Water, which sent out a handful of tweets over the weekend, including a link to what local communities are doing to protect their waterways and advice on using an app to help people figure out whether their local waterway is polluted.
“The EPA fully intends to continue to provide information to the public,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday, in response to questions about the media blackout. “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.”
Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement that the new restrictions were significant cause for concern.
“Vladimir Putin must be proud,” Cook said. “The EPA, like all federal agencies, is funded by taxpayer dollars, and Americans have the right to know what’s being done to protect or harm public health and the environment. Americans of all political stripes should be furious.”
Separately, the Interior Department reactivated its official Twitter accounts early Saturday after an abrupt shutdown after the National Park Service account retweeted two items viewed as unsympathetic to the new president. One referred to the size of the inauguration crowd on the Mall, while another addressed policies that were excised from the White House website after Trump’s swearing in.
Speaking to reporters about the Park Service incident, Spicer said, “My understanding is that because they 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.”
One Park Service account, from Badlands National Park, stirred controversy Tuesday when it tweeted several times about the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the implications of climate change, noting at one point, “Burning one gallon of gasoline puts 20lbs of carbon into our atmosphere #climate.”
Those tweets “were posted by a former employee who was not currently authorized to use the park’s account,” said a Park Service official, who was not authorized to talk on the record and so spoke on the condition of anonymity. While the posts were not ordered taken down, Badlands officials “chose to do so when they realized that their account had been compromised.”
The EPA appears to be the focus of concerted attention from the new administration: Officials there have also halted the granting of any new contracts or awards by the department. But the agency is not alone.
At the Agriculture Department, a slew of officials — including deputy under- and assistant secretaries, agency heads, and individuals serving in acting capacities in those posts — received a memo Monday instructing them to clear any media communications with the secretary’s office.
“In order for the Department to deliver unified, consistent messages, it’s important for the Office of the Secretary to be consulted on media inquiries and proposed responses to questions related to legislation, budgets, policy issues, and regulations,” the memo reads. “Policy-related statements should not be made to the press without notifying and consulting the Office of the Secretary. This includes press releases and on and off the record conversations.”
Employees of the agency’s scientific arm, the Agriculture Research Service, were ordered in a separate memo to cease publication of “outward facing” documents and news releases. The ARS guidance was not issued in coordination with other offices at the USDA, department officials said, and partially contradicted the department-wide memo that went out on the same day.
“Starting immediately and until further notice, [the Agricultural Research Service] will not release any public-facing documents. This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content,” wrote ARS chief Sharon Drumm in an email to employees.
USDA Acting Deputy Administrator Michael Young, in a phone call with reporters Tuesday evening, said he had discussed the issue with ARS and indicated he would be open to clarifying or rescinding the research agency’s confusing guidance.
“The ARS guidance was not reviewed by me. I would not have put that kind of guidance out. My guidance has to do with policy-related announcement and that sort of thing,” Young said. “I had my memo drafted before the ARS memo, I was not a part of it.”
Department officials scrambled to clarify the memo Tuesday afternoon, after intense public scrutiny and media requests, stating that ARS had not “blacked out public information” and adding that scientific articles published through professional peer-reviewed journals have not been banned. Such a decree would have conflicted with established scientific integrity standards and previous media guidance “encouraging, but not requiring, USDA scientists to communicate with the media about their scientific findings.”
“As the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency, ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public as we strive to find solutions to agricultural problems affecting America,” ARS said in a statement to The Washington Post Tuesday afternoon, seeking to clarify the scope of the memo.
Under President George W. Bush, several agencies restricted journalists’ access to researchers working on climate change and other issues. President Obama instructed agencies to develop a “scientific integrity” policy aimed at clarifying how federal employees could disseminate such information without fear of retribution.
Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that both EPA and USDA have scientific integrity policies that “among other things, protect scientists’ right to speak out about their work. The American people deserve to know the results of taxpayer-funded research.”
Separately, Interior chiefs of staff, bureaus and offices received a memo from Julie Little, director of the Office of Executive Secretariat and Regulatory Affairs, instructing them to clear all correspondence to or from the Secretary with her office at least five days “prior to any deadline for Departmental clearance.”
The memo also instructed officials to forward any correspondence from lawmakers, state and tribal officials and “national level environmental/recreational and industry officials” with Little’s office “prior to responding, regarding of addressee or signature level.”
Officials at several agencies — including the Justice and Labor departments, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey — said they were continuing to communicate as they had before Trump occupied the Oval Office.
In some cases, reporters described media blackouts at agencies that had not transpired. The National Institutes of Health issued an email to its Institute and Center directors informing them they should not communicate on public forums and with public officials on new or pending regulation, policy or guidance that is under review. The guidance referred to the rules that are now in limbo, given the fact that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus issued a regulatory freeze Friday on any regulations that had not yet been published in the Federal Register.
“Contrary to erroneous media reports, HHS and its agencies continue to communicate fully about its work through all of its regular communication channels with the public, the media and other relevant audiences,” said a Health and Human Services official in an email. “There is no directive to do otherwise.”
Jose DelReal, Lenny Bernstein, Sarah Kaplan and Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.