FEDERAL AGENCIES

Social media horse-collared as Trump team grabs reins

Twitter posts and other social media activity have been scaled back at U.S. EPA, the departments of the Interior and Energy, and other agencies as the new Trump administration gets traction.

The limits come as President Trump moves to block new federal hires and to freeze EPA contract and grant funding.

Incoming administrations routinely halt pending agency actions and move to ensure that their policies — not their predecessors' — are being represented, but some federal workers see the combination of Trump's early actions as a troubling sign.

"People are trying to plod along," but they are troubled "when they start seeing these sorts of things in the press," said John O'Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Council 238. "Right now they're flogging us, so I don't know what they expect."

The last EPA tweet went out on Jan. 19, the day before Trump's inauguration. It touted the Obama administration's air policies over the past eight years.

Yesterday, EPA staffers were instructed that "no social media messages will be going out," according to a memo obtained by E&E News.

That memo — offering guidance on agency communications — also said that no press releases would be going out to external audiences and there would be no blog messages. "A Digital Strategist will be coming on board to oversee social media. Existing, individually controlled, social media accounts may become more centrally controlled," the memo says.

Additionally, the so-called beachhead team of Trump political staffers will be reviewing a list of upcoming webinars to decide which ones would move forward, and "Incoming media requests will be carefully screened." No new content can be placed on any EPA website, the memo said, and only critical messages should be sent out via agency list servers. The directive noted that "messages can be shared broadly and end up in the press."

The memo was sent by a career EPA employee in the agency's Office of Resources, Operations and Management.

EPA's press office did not respond to a request for comment, and it's unclear whether the social media constraints were imposed at the direction of the new administration or by EPA career officials.

DOE is also keeping a close eye on press releases, social media and "outreach" during the transition, according to an internal memo obtained by E&E News.

A DOE public affairs staffer notified employees in a Jan. 18 email that all outgoing communications needed to be approved. "We've been asked that NOTHING is released after 12:01 on Friday that I have not cleared on," the email said. "New team, new 'temporary' rules."

DOE has issued several tweets since Inauguration Day, including a post on Jan. 20 saying, "Congratulations to our 45th President Donald J. Trump. @POTUS #InaugurationDay."

Interior has been tweeting, too, posting regular photos of national parks. On Inauguration Day, the agency retweeted a White House post saying, "It's official. Our 45th president has taken the oath of office & we couldn't be more excited! Congratulations to @POTUS Trump #Inauguration."

The department suspended all its Twitter activity for about 12 hours over the weekend in response to National Park Service tweets about the inauguration turnout and the White House website that some viewed as critical of the new administration.

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Interior reactivated its accounts and issued a new rule: no posts on the "policy priorities" of the incoming Interior secretary until Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.) is confirmed by the Senate for the position (Greenwire, Jan. 23).

EPA grants frozen

At EPA, there has also been a freeze on contracts and grant spending, O'Grady said.

Much of EPA's budget is devoted to state and local grants for environmental programs, like air and water cleanup initiatives, brownfields cleanup and environmental justice projects. In 2015, grants made up about half of EPA's budget — or about $4 billion, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Myron Ebell, a scholar at the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute who led Trump's EPA transition team, said today that he thinks freezing grant programs at the agency is "a good idea, and I don't think there's anything unusual about it."

Said O'Grady, "I think it's pretty standard that they do these sorts of things" as the new administration moves in. But in a few months, he said, if things are "still gloomy ... it's not going to be a fun place."

Bob Sussman, who served on President Obama's transition team for EPA and later as a former senior policy adviser to Administrator Lisa Jackson, said that he doesn't recall a communications freeze being issued as new appointees arrived in 2009.

"I can see how they can want to get control over press releases. I can see a point to that," Sussman said, but he said a ban on all online communications seemed "pretty sweeping" to him.

"To say nothing can be posted on the website, that is a pretty heavy ask given how vast and comprehensive the website is," Sussman said, adding if EPA stands by the communications freeze, "the work of the agency is going to come to a standstill."

Sussman noted that putting a freeze on existing contracts could be "problematic," while reviewing new contracts is "understandable," though they will have to move forward at some point for the agency's work to continue.

Sussman said "the uncertainty factor" looms large during a transition. "The problem is there is a vacuum, and nobody really knows what's coming," he said.

Jeff Holmstead, the first EPA air chief of the George W. Bush administration, also said that he doesn't remember if the agency issued similar freezes during the transition from the Clinton administration.

"It wouldn't surprise me. It would be very awkward for EPA to go about its business before the new political folks come in," said Holmstead, now a partner at Bracewell LLP.

Holmstead said it is natural for EPA to take a step back as the agency switches political hands.

"It's always true that there is tension between administrations when there is a change between political parties. The outgoing administration is rushing to get things done. The new folks are going to be nervous of the things that could be done or said on their watch," Holmstead said. "I don't think that this should make the career folks nervous."

Reporter Hannah Northey contributed.

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