The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Unlike those in the resistance, certain career officials’ stars have risen under Trump

During the Trump administration’s first year, Lee Francis Cissna was elevated from a career staffer in the Department of Homeland Security to be director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
During the Trump administration’s first year, Lee Francis Cissna was elevated from a career staffer in the Department of Homeland Security to be director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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He’s known by some as the cicada.

Randal Bowman has toiled 32 years at the Interior Department. A proponent of limited federal regulation, he goes underground during Democratic administrations.

But with the arrival of President Trump, the senior policy analyst has ascended like the insect that is famed for its periodic resurgence. He is helping Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke shrink national monument designations and scrutinizing whether agreements struck with politically active nonprofit groups mesh with Zinke’s priorities.

“He bides his time underground during Democratic administrations, and when Republican administrations come in, he reemerges and very aggressively works to promote their agenda,” said Don Barry, who worked with the career staffer while serving as Interior’s assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks under President Bill Clinton.

Bowman, now a special assistant to the National Park Service’s deputy director, is one of numerous civil servants throughout the government who are wielding new influence in the Trump administration after years of being out of sync with Barack Obama’s White House. While Trump has brought plenty of outsiders to the federal government, these insiders matter because, as Barry observed, “They understand the way the government works. They know where the power lies and which levers to use.”

Though this bureaucratic rite takes place every time a new party occupies the White House, the convulsive turnover that took place in 2017 made the shift far more pronounced. In some cases, staff members who served during the Obama years are being given the chance to roll back policies they had previously helped craft.

At the Department of Homeland Security, a trio of top officials were elevated from within the ranks: Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Lee Francis Cissna; Thomas D. Homan, deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and Kevin K. McAleenan, commissioner at Customs and Border Protection. All take a law-and-order approach more reflective of Trump’s tough line on people in the country illegally.

That “three career guys” are now in key immigration posts shows the administration is “setting our agencies back to factory settings, of just administering the law,” Cissna said in an interview.

Cissna drew harsh attention last month when he removed the phrase “nation of immigrants” from his organization’s mission statement — a reaction he termed “befuddling,” since he aimed to capture what the agency does and who it serves.

“I just started fresh,” he said. He added that he is like plenty of other civil servants who have found a welcome audience for their ideas in the wake of an election: “They get nowhere, then a new president comes in.”

Brandon Coleman has also seen his trajectory change significantly. In 2014, after helping expose long wait times and problems with suicide prevention programs at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix, he was suspended for 15 months on what turned out to be unsubstantiated charges of assault after he went public with his allegations about veterans’ care. In June, he attended the Oval Office ceremony at which Trump created the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, and he now works there as a whistleblower program specialist.

And Steven H. Cook, when he was a federal prosecutor in Tennessee, used to appear on conservative TV shows arguing against the Obama administration’s effort to curb long prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. Now, as director of the Office of Law Enforcement Liaison, he is helping Attorney General Jeff Sessions reverse many of the criminal justice policy changes his predecessors put in place.

Cook “has dedicated his whole career to keeping people safe,” Justice Department spokesman Ian D. Prior said in an email. “It is no surprise that someone so committed to safer streets and communities would thrive in the Trump Administration, which has prioritized reducing crime in America.”

The potential for policy and role reversals on certain issues has been especially pronounced. As the career official heading the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Center for Environmental Economics, Al McGartland argued unsuccessfully under the previous administration that officials had overestimated the financial benefits of extending federal jurisdiction to about 60 percent of U.S. water bodies. Last year, he helped crunch the numbers justifying withdrawal of that 2015 rule, jettisoning studies he said were not rigorous enough.

But few backbenchers have experienced as rapid and dramatic a role reversal as Indur Goklany, who during his more than three decades working at Interior’s Office of Policy Analysis also wrote papers for several conservative think tanks and participated in their events and films.

Weeks after Trump’s inauguration, Goklany found himself within the department’s inner circle of leadership and was subsequently transferred to work in the deputy secretary’s office.

Emails released under a Freedom of Information Act request and separately obtained by The Washington Post, coupled with interviews with current and former federal officials and academics, chart the ascent of a longtime Interior analyst who established his conservative bona fides outside the department even as he feuded with colleagues within it. Climate change was a core conflict, with Goklany questioning the severity of its impacts, the extent to which humans have contributed to it and the predictions of its future course.

An electrical engineer by training, he initially suggested rewriting Interior’s main climate Web page a week after Trump took office. Three days later, he proposed wiping out the previous administration’s priorities altogether.

“I actually think removing the Priorities page is better and more efficient than just modifying certain pages because climate change is not the only questionable priority on the current Priorities page,” Goklany wrote to Doug Domenech, who now serves as Interior’s assistant secretary of insular areas.

The page went offline for a few days last March and underwent multiple changes during the year, according to the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative. It now lists Zinke’s 10 top priorities before providing links to a range of topics such as American energy, regulatory policy, tribal nations and climate change.

Myron Ebell, a senior fellow at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute, has worked with Goklany for years in what Ebell described as his “moonlighting job as a one-man think tank.” Ebell sees his longtime ally as empowered in a way he hasn’t been since the Reagan administration.

“Obviously, they kept him in a box during the Obama administration, and now they’ve let him loose,” said Ebell, who headed Trump’s transition team at the EPA and lobbied the president to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. “He’s a national treasure, in my view. He’s a very meticulous analyst of policies, and he knows how to get behind the claims and look at the data.”

Yet Joel Clement, who headed the Office of Policy Analysis from 2011 until mid-2017 and supervised Goklany, said he fails to understand why Interior’s new leadership would rely on him to help guide climate policy.

“For an electrical engineer to suggest that climate change is good for society and is just dandy — there are lots of nonexperts with opinions,” Clement said in an email. “The bizarre thing is that sitting political appointees in the Department of the Interior would seek out his advice.”

Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said she had been informed by Interior’s human resources office that she could not comment on Goklany’s role. Similarly, a National Park Service official said Bowman would not be available for an interview.

Clement filed the FOIA request that produced the raft of emails related to Goklany’s activities last year. “He refused to discuss these activities with his supervisors while I was there at DOI, and his work products, a mystery to all of us in the career ranks, were likely to represent threats to scientific integrity,” Clement said.

The documents chronicle how Goklany reached out to new appointees in key positions and shared work he had done — sometimes as “an independent scientist” — that meshed with the White House’s push for expanded fossil fuel production.

Last spring, he got permission from Interior ethics lawyers to speak at the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change. During his talk, he drew connections between rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and indicators of well-being, such as life expectancy and per capita gross domestic product.

“Instead of living in the worst of times, we’re actually living in the best of times,” he said, “and carbon dioxide and fossil fuels are a good part of that.”

The documents show that Goklany has repeatedly scrutinized the department’s climate research. Last April, Domenech sent him an Obama-era National Park Service brochure on the effects of global warming throughout the parks. Goklany marked up the document with his thoughts, describing a page titled “Responding to Climate Change” as “propaganda for a favored option.”

The same month, the “Climate Change” Web page under Interior’s “Priorities,” flagged months earlier by Goklany when it provided a robust summary of the department’s climate activities, was trimmed to two paragraphs.

By May, Goklany was reviewing a draft of at least one U.S. Geological Survey paper on climate change and preparing “a summary overview of climate change activities gleaned from examining” past manuals, Web pages and secretarial orders. “I believe the idea is to put current climatic change in their long term context, i.e. going back millions of years,” he told a colleague in an email independently obtained by The Post.

Late last year, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt signed a secretarial order wiping out four directives and policy manuals instructing Interior employees on how to address climate issues and other environmental impacts on public lands, including at least one Goklany had singled out in May.

The order said the documents were “inconsistent” with the administration’s energy goals.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Kevin K. McAleenan's title at Customs and Border Protection.

Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.