Cabinet & Agencies

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  • Trump Calls On Only Right-Wing Outlets, Again Avoiding Questions About A Top Adviser Possibly Breaking Federal Law

    Blog ››› ››› ZACHARY PLEAT

    For his second straight press conference, President Donald Trump called on only conservative reporters, this time during a joint presser with the Canadian prime minister. By responding solely to friendly press, Trump avoided answering any questions about reports that national security adviser Michael Flynn may have violated federal law.

    Reporters have been questioning whether Flynn can retain his job after multiple current and former American officials told The New York Times that he discussed lifting Russian sanctions with the country’s ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration -- a potential violation of the Logan Act, “which prohibits private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments in disputes involving the American government.” Vice President Mike Pence previously denied that Flynn had discussed this topic, but his assurance relied solely on Flynn’s recollection of the conversation.

    During Trump’s February 13 press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, reporters had a chance to ask the president about this pressing issue, but Trump skirted that possibility by calling on only reporters for conservative outlets friendly to Trump -- Scott Thuman of the conservative Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s WJLA, the Washington, D.C., affiliate of ABC, and Kaitlan Collins of The Daily Caller, a pro-Trump outlet founded by Trump shill Tucker Carlson.

    During the election, Sinclair reportedly struck a deal with the Trump campaign to “secure better media coverage” in exchange for “more access to Trump and the campaign.” Thuman, who is also a political correspondent for conspiracy theorist Sharyl Attkisson’s Full Measure, asked Trump about how his philosophical differences with Trudeau would affect cooperation on trade and terrorism:

    The next question came from Collins, who also failed to ask about Flynn but did question Canada’s security measures surrounding refugees. Her previous work on refugees includes an article about Syrian refugees who she dubbed “Syria-sly hot,” suggesting governors opposed to allowing refugees into the country would change their minds if they saw these women:

    Many journalists criticized the selection of these reporters. Even Fox News’ national security correspondent, Jennifer Griffin, asked if the queries were “planted questions”:

    On CNN, Wolf Blitzer immediately followed the end of the presser by highlighting the lack of questions about Flynn’s future, explaining, “Presumably that’s what the White House wanted.” CNN’s Gloria Borger also questioned whether “they arranged that in advance.”

    The press conference with Trudeau followed a similar one from February 10 featuring Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, where Trump also took questions from only two reporters representing a couple of conservative media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets, the New York Post and Fox Business Network. Those reporters likewise avoided asking about Flynn, even though the reporting on his possible violation of the Logan Act had come out the previous day.

  • Right-Wing Media Urge A Great Bureaucratic Purge

    ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    Conservative media figures praised President Donald Trump’s firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates and called on him to further purge the federal government of “Obama appointees” and “lifelong leftists.” Trump has also frozen federal hiring and is reportedly considering a “reduction in force.” His press secretary also suggested State Department employees should “get with the program or … go.”

  • Here Are The Hacks In Charge Of Broadcasting Trump's Propaganda Internationally

    Trump Appointed Two Campaign Aides To Oversee The Transition Of The Broadcasting Board Of Governors

    Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

    The work of the U.S. government’s largest public diplomacy program is currently being reviewed by two of President Donald Trump’s former campaign aides. It would be difficult for the administration to have found less qualified candidates for the job.

    The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), whose mission is to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” oversees a global network of broadcasters. Through Voice of America, a government-run news agency that provides the world with news about the United States and its policies, and nonprofit grantees like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which works to inform foreign populations that lack a free press about the news in their own nations, BBG reaches an audience of 278 million people in 100 countries and 61 languages.

    This is a critical moment for U.S. public diplomacy. Russia is fighting an information war in Europe and across the world in order to produce electoral victories for favored political parties and candidates. China continues to expand its economic influence in Asia and Africa. The Islamic State group uses a vast social media apparatus to recruit new adherents to violent extremism. U.S. efforts to counter those challenges depend in part on ensuring that accurate, meaningful information is conveyed to foreign communities.

    As the new administration takes over that vast apparatus, it has deputized Matthew Ciepielowski and Matthew Schuck “to the CEO suite at the BBG where they will work with senior management” to oversee the transition, Politico reported. "As is routine for many federal agencies during any presidential transition, yesterday we welcomed the two-person landing team from the Trump administration," BBG CEO John F. Lansing said in a statement to the publication. "We look forward to working with them as we continue to fulfill our mission, and support the independence of our journalists around the world."

    Lansing joined the BBG in 2015 following nine years as president of Scripps Networks, where he oversaw a $2.5 billion portfolio of six cable television networks and a digital division. Before that, he managed 10 television stations. He also had experience running a marketing association composed of 90 U.S. and Canadian television programmers. He got his start as a field producer in broadcast television and worked his way through newsrooms in that industry.  

    In short, Lansing has decades of experience managing media bureaucracies, working with foreign journalism outlets, and working as a reporter himself.

    Trump has sent two hacks with little to no experience in journalism and none at all in public diplomacy or international relations to review Lansing’s work.

    Matt Ciepielowski: The Ineffectual Political Operative

    Ciepielowski is a 2011 graduate of Quinnipiac University, where he majored in political science and public relations, according to his LinkedIn profile. He was news editor and senior managing editor for the Quinnipiac Chronicle; the school paper’s archive shows his byline on 11 news stories or opinion pieces between September 2010 and March 2011. He once interned with the marketing firm Silver Lake Productions. That is the sum total of what could, under the most charitable circumstances, be described as his journalism background.

    In an unusual twist for someone now helping to oversee a massive U.S. public diplomacy effort, Ciepielowski titled one of his college opinion pieces “Truth doesn’t kill people, our government does.” In that essay, Ciepielowski praises Wikileaks for releasing U.S. diplomatic cables, disparages Julian Assange’s arrest on Swedish rape charges, and states that the U.S. military “has killed thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians” in Afghanistan.

    After graduation, Ciepielowski spent three and a half years as a field organizer, first for former Rep. Ron Paul’s (R-TX) presidential campaign in Louisiana and then for the Koch brothers’ organization Americans for Prosperity in New Hampshire. In March 2015, he became one of the first hires to Trump’s presidential campaign when he was named New Hampshire state director. Corey Lewandowski’s hiring was announced the same day.

    Ciepielowski does not appear to have been very good at his job. During the New Hampshire primary, a more veteran operative was moved into the state due to reported fears that Ciepielowski was “in over his head.”

    Trump won the primary and Ciepielowski remained in the role, but he still didn’t seem to make much of an impact. In August, he was the subject of a Politico article detailing how “Veteran Republican operatives and key leaders from several critical battleground states say that at best, they've never heard of Trump's state directors or have only limited familiarity with them — and at worst, they know them, and question their ability to do the job.”

    Ciepielowski was also a central figure in a Trump campaign finance scandal. In July, experts highlighted “red flags” in Trump’s Federal Election Commission filings, including a potentially illegal pattern of “what appeared to be double reimbursements” for the same employee expenses, according to CNBC. Ciepielowski “received the most money, bringing in $7,199 — all tax free,” according to the channel.

    The Trump campaign paid Ciepielowski nearly $200,000 for his work, federal filings show.

    It’s unclear whether Ciepielowski’s radical theories about the correct size of government allow room for public diplomacy. During a 2014 appearance on the libertarian Rebel Love Show, Ciepielowski was asked, “Are you participating [in politics] because you want to do whatever you can and take it down from within?” He replied, “It doesn’t even necessarily have to be take it down -- I want to do whatever I can to lessen the boot of the state on people’s throats as we go along.” Asked, “If you could get rid of that boot, would you?” he responded, “Once we get the government down to 20 percent, 10 percent, 5 percent of the size it is now, then I would be more ready to have that conversation.”

    Matt Schuck: The Right-Wing Media Hack

    After graduating in 2012 from Montgomery College, where he studied broadcast radio and mass communications, Schuck rotated between jobs in the right-wing media and conservative and corporate public relations gigs before becoming Trump’s Wisconsin communications director in August.

    Schuck got his start in radio, helping launch the Heritage Foundation’s show and working as an executive producer for the Virginia-based right-wing radio host John Fredericks. He has flacked for the Koch-funded Conservative Veterans for America and for the Online Lenders Alliance, the trade organization for the disreputable payday-lending industry.

    Between PR jobs, Schuck spent 18 months working for second-tier conservative media outlets.

    First he was a staff writer at Jason Mattera’s Daily Surge. Mattera was once a conservative wunderkind, becoming the editor of the venerable right-wing magazine Human Events in 2010, at age 26. He was terminated two years later, soon after accidentally conducting an ambush interview of a Bono impersonator (he thought he was actually ambushing Bono).

    At Daily Surge, Schuck produced garden-variety right-wing clickbait and aggregation, along with a hefty helping of culture war outrage. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to get him a job as a political correspondent at One America News Network (OANN), the then-two-year-old conservative cable news network which has positioned itself as a more conservative competitor to Fox News.

    At OANN, Schuck conducted softball interviews with a wide variety of Republican and conservative leaders, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Citizens United’s David Bossie, and American Conservative Union’s Matt Schlapp.

    One such interview stands out. In September 2015, Trump announced that he had decided to boycott Fox News for “treating me very unfairly.” Fox responded by saying that Trump’s tweet came after the network had canceled a scheduled interview with him because of his “personal attacks on our anchors and hosts.”

    While Fox tried to patch things up, Trump did an interview with Schuck instead. Schuck introduced the segment by stating that Trump had just appeared before “a room packed full of supporters” to discuss, among other topics, “why Donald Trump will make America great again.” In the interview, Schuck offered Trump an open forum to discuss his grievances with Fox and repeat talking points. He also interviewed a Trump supporter. Schuck closed the segment by declaring that “one thing is clear: Donald Trump is in it to win it.”

    Trump apparently enjoyed the interview:

    A few weeks later, Schuck highlighted Trump’s praise of OANN:

    Schuck left OANN the next month to become communications director for the Online Lenders Alliance. In August 2016, he joined the Trump campaign. And now he’s helping to lay the groundwork for our international public diplomacy efforts.

  • Former Breitbart Chief Now Writing America's Foreign Policy: Trump Gives Stephen Bannon Place On National Security Council

    Media And Security Experts React To Bannon's NSC Appointment: "Unprecedented," "Lunacy," "Truly Dangerous"

    ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    National security experts and media figures denounced President Donald Trump’s “dangerous” decision to give his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, a prominent role on the National Security Council. Bannon is an extremist anti-Semite who formerly ran the white nationalist “alt-right” website Breitbart.com.

  • Trump’s Immigration Order Targeting Muslims Is Greeted With Praise By Conservative Media And Dismay By Experts

    ACLU: The “Intent To Discriminate On The Basis Of Religion, Even Hidden Behind Pretextual Religious Neutrality, Violates The Establishment Clause And Equal Protection”

    ››› ››› TYLER CHERRY

    The executive action President Donald Trump has signed to limit immigration of refugees from a group of majority-Muslim countries was condemned by national security experts and media figures when he initially floated them. Those experts have noted that Trump’s plans are unconstitutional and antithetical to American values and that they would cost the U.S. billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

  • How Reporters And Civil Servants Can Team Up To Thwart Trump’s Anti-Transparency Agenda

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    On January 24, two anonymous sources at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) told Reuters that the Trump administration had instructed EPA officials to remove the data-heavy climate change page from the agency’s website, and that the page could be taken down as soon as the following day. A public backlash quickly ensued, and the Trump administration at least temporarily backed away from its plan to shut down the website on January 25, as E&E News reported.

    Whether the Trump-led EPA will ultimately remove the website remains to be seen, but regardless, the episode represents a victory for open data and a guide for how whistleblowers can work with reporters to push back against Trump administration gag orders that have alarmed science and transparency advocates.

    And judging from their initial response, major media outlets seem to recognize that seeking out whistleblowers is particularly important in the current political landscape.

    On the same day that the EPA employees alerted Reuters of Trump’s plan to shut down the EPA climate website, Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein reminded government scientists and officials that they can “securely and confidentially” send tips and documents to the AP via its SecureDrop service. The Washington Post also ran through its version of SecureDrop in a January 25 article titled, “Here’s how to leak government documents to The Post.”

    Meanwhile, the staff at InsideClimate News (ICN) provided whistleblowers with a list of do’s and don’ts for revealing internal documents and information to ICN without compromising themselves.

    It is safe to say that there is already widespread concern among civil servants about government transparency under the Trump administration, as a series of rogue climate-related tweets from National Park Service employees clearly demonstrates. But this battle over information is really just beginning, and it’s more important than ever that reporters work with whistleblowers to hold the White House accountable.

  • Eight Things We Learned From Scott Pruitt’s EPA Confirmation Hearing

    Blog ››› ››› ANDREW SEIFTER

    Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, President-elect Trump’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), took part in a contentious hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on January 18. The hearing largely focused on Pruitt’s deep ties to polluting energy companies and track record of opposing the EPA’s clean air and water safeguards. Here are eight key moments from the hearing that are worthy of media attention.

    1. Pruitt doubled down on climate science denial, despite affirming that climate change is not a “hoax.”

    Coming into the hearing, Pruitt was on the record as a climate science denier who has refused to accept the consensus among climate scientists and the world’s leading scientific institutions that human activities such as burning fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming. Pruitt was given multiple opportunities during the hearing to clarify his views on climate science -- and he responded by doubling down on his climate science denial.

    In his opening remarks, Pruitt stated: “Science tells us that the climate is changing, and that human activity in some manner impacts that change. The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue, and well it should be.”

    Later in the hearing, Pruitt admitted that he does not believe climate change is a “hoax,” as Trump has claimed, but that doesn’t mean that he suddenly made an about-face and aligned his view with that of the world’s leading climate scientists. In response to a question from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who cited the 97 percent of climate scientists who say global warming is caused by human activities, Pruitt again asserted that “the ability to measure with precision the degree of human activity’s impact on the climate is subject to more debate on whether the climate is changing or whether human activity contributes to it.”

    Finally, in response to further questioning from Sanders, Pruitt made the astounding proclamation that his personal opinion on the subject is “immaterial” to serving as the EPA administrator.

    2. Pruitt misled about the basis of his opposition to EPA safeguards against dangerous mercury pollution from power plants.

    Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin, and mercury pollution, which largely comes from coal- and oil-fired power plants, is particularly dangerous for children and expecting mothers. In 2011, the Obama administration issued the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards to cut mercury pollution by requiring power plants to install proven and widely available pollution control technology. Pruitt responded by issuing a series of lawsuits to block the EPA’s mercury safeguards, including one lawsuit that is ongoing.

    During the hearing, Pruitt defended his lawsuits against the EPA’s mercury standards, despite acknowledging that mercury should be regulated by the EPA. At one point, following pointed questions by Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE), Pruitt claimed that “there was no argument that we made from a state perspective that mercury is not a hazardous pollutant under Section 112 [of the Clean Air Act]. Our argument focused upon the cost-benefit analysis that the EPA failed to do.” In fact, Pruitt’s 2012 lawsuit against the EPA’s mercury standards did cite Section 112 and asserted that “the record does not support EPA’s findings that mercury … pose[s] public health hazards,” as Environmental Defense Fund’s Jeremy Symons pointed out.

    Moreover, Pruitt’s ongoing lawsuit against the EPA is based on a “rigged” cost-benefit analysis that “considers all of [the regulations’] costs, but only some of their benefits,” as the Union of Concerned Scientists has noted. The lawsuit claims that that EPA’s calculation of the financial benefits of the safeguards cannot include indirect benefits, such as reduced smog and sulfur dioxide, that would also be reduced by the pollution control technology used to cut mercury pollution -- even though the EPA accounted for indirect costs, such as higher electricity prices (in addition to direct costs like the expense of installing pollution controls).

    3. Pruitt refused to rule out blocking California’s clean car rules and other state-level pollution limits.

    During the hearing, Pruitt did nothing to assure progressive states that the Trump administration will not pre-emptively stop them from taking action to fight climate change and reduce pollution.

    First, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) noted that “the EPA has historically recognized California’s authority to issue new motor vehicle pollution standards that go above and beyond federal standards,” and she asked Pruitt whether he would commit to “recognizing California’s authority to issue its own new motor vehicle air pollution standards.” Pruitt replied that he would “review” the issue but refused to commit to upholding California’s right to set stronger pollution standards.

    Later, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) returned to this topic, noting that Pruitt wouldn’t commit to supporting the right of California, Massachusetts, and other states “to do what is best for global warming in their own states,” adding, “When you say ‘review,’ I hear undo.” Markey concluded that Pruitt has a “double standard” in which he says states like Oklahoma that agree with “the oil and gas industry perspective” have “a right to do what they want to do,” while states like California and Massachusetts may not have the right to “increase their protection for the environment” and reduce carbon pollution.

    4. Pruitt confirmed that he equates the interests of the oil industry with those of the people of Oklahoma.

    In 2014, The New York Times reported that Pruitt sent a letter to the EPA on state government stationery that accused federal regulators of overestimating industry air pollution, and that the letter was secretly almost entirely written by lawyers for Devon Energy, one of the biggest oil and gas companies in Oklahoma. At the time, Pruitt responded to the controversy by declaring, “That’s actually called representative government in my view of the world.” During the hearing, Pruitt again confirmed that he equates representing the people of Oklahoma with representing the oil industry.

    Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) mentioned the letter, asking Pruitt if he would acknowledge that he “presented a private oil company’s position, rather than a position developed by the people of Oklahoma.” Pruitt replied that he “disagree[d]” with Merkley’s conclusion and asserted that the letter was “representing the interests of the state of Oklahoma” because it “was representing the interest of an industry in the state of Oklahoma, not a company.” Pruitt cited the fact that the oil industry is “a very important industry to our state” as justification for equating the industry’s position with that of the state.

    5. Pruitt claimed he didn’t solicit fossil fuel contributions for the Republican Attorneys General Association.

    Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) drilled down on Pruitt’s extensive financial ties to fossil fuel companies, including Koch Industries, ExxonMobil, Murray Energy, and Devon Energy. At one point, Whitehouse asked Pruitt if he had ever solicited funds from those companies for the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), to which Pruitt answered, “I have not asked them for money on behalf of RAGA.”

    While it’s possible Pruitt’s claim is true, a document uncovered by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) shows that RAGA gave call sheets to Republican attorneys general to solicit funds from corporations, as CMD’s Nick Surgey noted. So the exchange is an important area for reporter follow-up, as the Natural Resources Defense Council’s John Walke explained.

    6. Pruitt refused to recuse himself from his ongoing litigation against the EPA, setting up an apparent conflict of interest.

    Sen. Markey asked Pruitt if he would recuse himself as EPA administrator from the lawsuits that he has brought against the EPA to overturn the agency’s clean air and water safeguards, adding that if Pruitt refused, “people are going to think that it’s not just the fox guarding the henhouse, it’s the fox destroying the henhouse.” Pruitt answered that he would recuse himself only “as directed by EPA ethics counsel.” Markey noted that Pruitt’s continued involvement in those lawsuits would create a “fundamental conflict of interest.”

    Later in the hearing, Sen. Harris pressed Pruitt on whether he has “discretion” to recuse himself from the cases, independent of what the ethics counsel says. After initially dodging the question, Pruitt acknowledged, “Clearly there’s a discretion to recuse.”

    7. Pruitt inflated his environmental credentials by misrepresenting two poultry industry cases.

    In addition to criticizing Pruitt’s efforts to overturn clean air and water protections, opponents of Pruitt’s nomination have pointed out the lack of evidence that he has taken any proactive steps to protect Oklahoma’s environment during his time as attorney general. For example, Eric Schaeffer of the Environmental Integrity Project noted in a New York Times op-ed, “During his six-year tenure, [Pruitt’s] office issued more than 700 news releases announcing enforcement actions, speeches and public appearances, and challenges to federal regulations. My organization could not find any describing actions by Mr. Pruitt to enforce environmental laws or penalize polluters.” 

    When the question of Pruitt’s environmental credentials arose during the hearing, Pruitt grossly exaggerated his record of holding polluters accountable by misrepresenting two poultry industry cases.

    First, noted anti-environment Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) invited Pruitt to explain “why you have become such a hero of the [Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission] people.” Pruitt replied by touting an agreement he reached with the state of Arkansas related to chicken manure pollution, declaring, “I actually reached out to my Democratic colleague Dustin McDaniel, the attorney general of the state of Arkansas, and we were able to negotiate an agreement that had phosphorous levels set at 0.037, scientifically driven and enforced on both sides of the border for the first time in history.”   

    But Pruitt’s agreement with Arkansas “didn’t take any steps to reduce pollution, but actually only proposes another unnecessary study and attempts to suspend compliance” for another three years of pollution, as Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) explained during the hearing. Indeed, as the Environmental Working Group noted, “Instead of fighting to enforce his state’s own water quality standards for phosphorus, [Pruitt] stalled. Pruitt’s 2013 amendment to the earlier agreement gave poultry polluters three more years to meet the goals established in 2003, plus an opening to weaken the standard by commissioning further study of the problem.”

    Later, Sen. Harris asked Pruitt if he could “name a few instances in which you have filed a lawsuit in your independent capacity as attorney general against a corporate entity for violating state or federal pollution laws.” Pruitt responded by citing a lawsuit against the Mahard Egg Farm, which he described as involving “the clean-up of a large hen operation that affected water quality.”

    However, parties on both sides of the lawsuit told ThinkProgress that the Mahard case “began years before he took office.” ThinkProgress further noted that while “Pruitt did technically file the case on behalf of Oklahoma, it was both filed and settled on the same day” after years of extensive negotiations that did not involve Pruitt, and it quoted Mahard’s lawyer as saying, “Nothing against AG Pruitt, but it was really a DOJ, EPA-driven process.”

    8. Pruitt passed the buck on addressing Oklahoma’s fracking-induced earthquakes.

    Citing Oklahoma’s “record-breaking number of earthquakes” that scientists attribute to the process of fracking for oil and gas, Sen. Sanders asked Pruitt if he could cite “any opinion that you wrote, any enforcement actions you took against the companies that were injecting waste-fracking water.” Pruitt replied that he was “very concerned” about the issue, but that “the corporation commission in Oklahoma is vested with the jurisdiction and they’ve actually acted on that.”

    However, although the Oklahoma Corporation Commission is responsible for regulating wastewater injection, experts told The Atlantic that “there were a number of legal questions on which Pruitt could have engaged” (emphasis original). Those include issuing a legal opinion on whether the commission could stop wastewater from coming from other states or join Pawnee residents in a class-action lawsuit against oil companies that they say are liable for the earthquakes. The Atlantic added that “while it is true that Pruitt does not regulate oil and gas extraction in Oklahoma, other attorneys general have involved themselves in difficult fracking cases.”

    Sanders concluded: “Your state is having a record-breaking number of earthquakes. You’ve acknowledged that you are concerned. If that’s the type of EPA administrator you will be, you’re not going to get my vote.”

    Kevin Kalhoefer contributed to this report.