No Trump-Ordered Information Blackout, Federal Agencies Say

Alicia Ault

January 26, 2017

Several federal departments and agencies that deal with science and health issues — and climate change in particular — have found themselves at the center of a controversy over whether the Trump administration had ordered them to stop communicating with the press and the public, or to stop issuing new grants or disseminating research findings.

News reports have alleged that since President Donald Trump's swearing in on January 20, the US Department of the Interior, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have all been admonished by the administration.

Despite the reports, the Trump administration and agency officials have said that the White House has not issued any official clampdown.

At the daily White House briefing on January 25, a reporter asked if the Trump administration had ordered a shutdown of agency Twitter accounts, or otherwise issued any mandate against communicating with the public. "There's nothing that's come from the White House, absolutely not," said White House spokesman Sean Spicer.

"A couple of these agencies have had problems adhering to their own policies," he said. The EPA and the National Park Service (part of the US Department of the Interior) are "taking steps in those two cases to address inappropriate use of social media," said Spicer.

HHS said that it had not been subject to any communications blackout. "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. There is no directive to do otherwise," said HHS spokesman Bill Hall in a statement to Medscape Medical News.

It was also widely reported that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shelved plans for a Climate and Health Summit, which had been scheduled for February 14 through 16 in Atlanta.

A CDC official — it's not clear who — decided to postpone the summit out of a desire to not get off on the wrong foot with the incoming administration, Georges Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told Medscape Medical News.

It might have been perceived as too "in your face" to hold the conference so soon after the inauguration — given the president's avowed opinion that climate change is not real — said Dr Benjamin, who was to be a keynote speaker, along with former Vice President Al Gore. "It was a high-visibility conference in an era when there would be new leaders making funding decisions," said Dr Benjamin, who added that he anticipated that the summit would be held at some point later in 2017.

With every new administration, it's anticipated that policies and priorities will be different, said Dr Benjamin. But he called the Trump transition "unusual," in that much is either unknown, or what is known is creating a climate of fear. "There's a great concern that this time will be very different," Dr Benjamin said.

EPA and USDA Disavow Clampdown

It appears from some news accounts that staff at both the EPA and the USDA were told to stop communicating, and that the orders came from high-level officials at each agency. Officials have said they acted on their own, but at the EPA it seems that the Trump team was more closely involved and may have directed the orders.

According to news reports on January 24, including in The Hill , EPA staff was told to stop issuing press releases, blog updates, and social media posts, and the USDA's Agricultural Research Service was told by its chief of staff to stop issuing news releases, photos, and other "public-facing" documents.

The USDA's outgoing secretary — an Obama administration appointee — had ordered staff to consult with the office of the secretary on all media-related issues, to help smooth the transition, according to the New York Times .

An EPA spokesman told Medscape Medical News that it had been working with the Trump transition team, but that "The EPA fully intends to continue to provide information to the public," adding, "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."

The EPA is reviewing grants and contracts with the Trump transition, but, otherwise, it is business as usual, said the spokesman. The agency "is continuing to award the environmental program grants and state revolving loan fund grants to the states and tribes."

It was also reported that the EPA was being ordered to remove a climate change page from its website, but that was later denied by the agency.

Democrats, Watchdogs Decry Actions

Reports of a Trump clampdown created a swift and loud reaction among many already concerned about the administration's approach to climate change, science, and transparency.

"Given this administration's apparent penchant for 'alternative facts,' it is not unreasonable to expect that these gag orders will be followed up by 'alternative science,'" said Michael Jacobson, PhD, cofounder and president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy organization in Washington, in a statement issued shortly after the reports began surfacing. "This is an attack on science. It is an attack on the public's right to know," he said.

"Demands to shut down informational websites and prevent the release of scientific findings are straight out of Orwell," said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement. "Americans have the right to see and benefit from taxpayer-funded research, and scientists have the right to share their findings openly and honestly, without political pressure, manipulation or suppression," he said.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for open government, said that it was watching the developments. "We adamantly oppose measures that limit disclosing documents and data to the public, particularly the publication of scientific papers, research and analysis, or public access to government scientists or technologists that can explain the findings," said the organization, in a statement.

In a press briefing on January 25, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA), said that if the Trump administration is suppressing government communications or research, "they shouldn't be doing that." She said that even when political parties had disagreed on policy or viewpoints, they at least had "a standard, where you agree to a set of facts or some numbers or a baseline and then you go from there." The White House did not seem to be operating that way, said Pelosi. "They seem to be happy to be in a fact-free zone," she said.

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