USA First Look

Why did Trump order a media blackout for the EPA? Can he do that?

The measure is expected to be temporary as the new administration gets acclimated and its messaging in order. Civil rights and environmental groups say the 'gag order' on tweets and blogs is a step too far.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer calls on a reporter during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017. Mr. Spicer answered questions about the Dakota Pipeline, infrastructure, jobs, and other topics.
Susan Walsh/AP | Caption

Having rebuffed climate science repeatedly in his run-up to the election, President Trump seems to be teeing up a series of policy changes to steer the government away from his predecessor's priorities and toward a course of action in line with his views. For the time being, he has told several agencies involved in environmental issues to keep quiet.

The new administration has sent directives to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of the Interior (DOI), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in an apparent effort to limit communications with the public, multiple unnamed sources told Reuters. The EPA was instructed further to take down its webpage dedicated to climate change, an action that could take place as early as Wednesday.

The orders bolstered worries that Mr. Trump could try to minimize the voices and data that show human activity contributes to climate change. When asked if the EPA had been gagged, however, White House press secretary Sean Spicer demurred.

"I don't know ... we're looking into it," Mr. Spicer said Tuesday, adding that the public should expect steps to be taken to align the messages of existing government agencies with those of the new administration. "I don't think it's a surprise we're going to review the policies, but I don't have any info at this time."

An unnamed source within the EPA said Tuesday that the Trump administration had instructed staffers not to speak with news media or publish press releases or blog posts on social media for the time being. They were also told to avoid publicizing forthcoming conferences and presentations planned for the next two months – an order some say undermines their ability to fulfill their duties.

Liz Purchia, who served as EPA press secretary under former President Obama, said it's a good thing the United States is not in the midst of an environmental emergency while the new administration acclimates to its surroundings.

"It's one thing to get your ducks in a row, but to put a gag order on public servants and all agency activities, not only prevents them from doing their jobs. It puts our country at risk," Ms. Purchia told the Associated Press in an email.

"Is President Trump the only one allowed to tweet in government right now?" she added.

Doug Ericksen, communications director for Trump's EPA transition team, said he would expect the communications clampdown to be lifted by week's end.

"We're just trying to get a handle on everything and make sure what goes out reflects the priorities of the new administration," Mr. Ericksen said.

Others, however, contend that the Trump administration's actions go too far. Jeff Ruch, executive director for the advocacy group Public Employees for Environment Responsibility, said the orders go further than the actions of past changes in administrations. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club environmental group, said the scientific information provided to the public by the EPA plays too vital of a role in American communities to let "the fossil fuel industry hacks who have invaded the agency to play" with it like a toy.

"This purge by the Trump administration leads down an extremely dangerous and dark path, and must stop now," Mr. Brune said in an email statement.

Civil liberties groups similarly warned that the recent actions could threaten a fundamental relationship between Americans and their leaders.

"Gag orders that freeze communications with the public and government officials go against basic notions of government transparency and accountability," Michael Macleod-Ball of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said in a statement.

The gag coincides with a freeze on EPA contracts and grants that do not apply to pollution cleanup or infrastructure. Even so, the freeze prompted confusion among Democrats and Republicans alike in states that depend on EPA funding. Michigan's members of Congress, for instance, raised concerns over whether the Trump administration's actions could interfere with aid to Flint, which has been reeling from a water supply contaminated with lead.

Trump has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of climate science. On the day President Obama won reelection in 2012, Trump tweeted, "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive."

Trump's nominee to head the Department of the Interior, US Rep. Ryan Zinke (R) of Montana, has publicly disagreed with Trump's suggestion that climate change is a hoax, as ABC News reported. But the team appointed by Trump to guide his transition has drawn from lobbyists in the energy industry and think tanks that favor drilling, as Reuters reported, citing a 10-member team.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, whom Trump nominated to run the EPA, has led 14 lawsuits against the agency. Mr. Pruitt sat for seven hours of questioning before the US Senate last week, but no vote on his nomination has yet been scheduled.

Officials who claim the Earth's climate is not warming are at odds with the scientific community's consensus, as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration notes on its website. An overwhelming majority – 97 percent – of scientists actively publishing climate-related studies agree that warming trends over the past century are more than likely the result of human activity.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.