'It's a dark time right now,' a former Obama administration spokeswoman says as multiple agencies tell employees to restrict news releases and social media.
Federal agencies are clamping down on public information and social media in the early days of Donald Trump's presidency, limiting employees' ability to issue news releases, tweet or otherwise communicate with the outside world, according to memos and sources from multiple agencies.
The steps to mute federal employees — seen to varying degrees in the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of the Interior, Transportation, Agriculture and Health and Human Services — are sparking early fears of a broader crackdown across the government, as Trump vows to pursue an agenda sharply at odds with his predecessor.
New administrations have long sought to control the message coming out of federal agencies. But watchdog groups worry about what restrictions the Trump administration may yet impose on federal workers, who are already reeling from the president's decision Monday to freeze most hiring, as well as a move in Congress to allow lawmakers to impose draconian salary cuts for individual employees.
"From what we can tell, the cloud of Mordor is descending across the federal service," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
"It's a dark time right now," said Liz Purchia, who headed EPA's public affairs office during the Obama administration. "People are nervous and they are scared about what they can and can't do. They don't want to get in trouble and they want to do the right thing.
"It's ironic that Trump based his entire campaign on Twitter and social media and now he's preventing the staff that work from him from communicating with the public," Purchia added.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this story. But Trump aides have rejected criticism that they're planning to embark on a "witch hunt" targeting federal employees.
Asked about that matter Tuesday, Spicer said: "My understanding is that because they had inappropriately violated their own social media policies, there was guidance that was put out to the department to act in compliance with the rules that were set forth."
Other agencies have since followed suit to restrain their employees' external communications.
On Monday, the Transportation Department advised its employees not to publish news releases or engage on DOT's social media accounts until they get more guidance from the new administration. The move was not a "ban," a department spokesperson told POLITICO, and DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration continued to tweet about distracted driving and vehicle recalls.
Meanwhile, employees at HHS and the National Institutes of Health received a memotelling them to halt external correspondence.
"For your additional awareness, please note that we have been directed not to send any correspondence to public officials (to include Members of Congress and state and local officials) between now and February 3, unless specifically authorized by the Department," said one section of the memo, which was obtained by POLITICO.
But an HHS official disputed the idea that the agency had been muzzled, and said people were misinterpreting a memo from acting Secretary Norris Cochran that "pertains only to proposed or pending regulations." Trump had ordered a "regulatory freeze" Friday night, telling agencies to hold off on all pending rules until his administration can review them.
"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," the official said. "There is no directive to do otherwise."
NIH spokeswoman Renate Myles said her agency was told "to hold on publishing new rules or guidance in the Federal Register or other public forums and discussing them with public officials until the administration has had an opportunity to review them."
At EPA, the lockdown extends well beyond formal coordinated messaging. Aside from a block on any press releases and social media posts, a Monday memo circulated internally and obtained by POLITICO warned that EPA employees scheduled to speak at public events like conferences in the next month must alert Trump's team of temporary political appointees.
Trump's team will also review EPA's previously planned public webinars "and decide which ones will go forward." And EPA employees were cautioned to send only "essential" messages to email lists, since those messages "can be shared broadly and end up in the press."
Separately, employees of the USDA's Agriculture Research Service received a memo Monday from branch chief of staff Sharon Drumm telling them that the release of documents, including "but not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds and social media content," would be held until further notice.
The service did send out a news release Monday, touting a National Academy of Sciences award given to one of its scientists, and retweeted an Academy statement on the win. Both ARS and USDA's communications office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The move was unusual for USDA's research arm, which looks at the broad scope of food and agriculture issues including nutrition, crop yields and even detecting fire ants. It was unclear whether the restrictions also apply to researchers publishing work in outside scientific journals, attending conferences and other public-facing activities that ARS scientists regularly engage in.
The worries about freedom of information in the government extend well beyond tweets and press releases. On Monday, two of Trump's political aides visited Voice of America, where a little-noticed move by Congress will give the president unprecedented control over a broadcasting agency that has been governed by a bipartisan board of directors. And the CDC gave no explanation as it canceled a conference planned for next month on climate change — a move that one of the event's scheduled speakers described to The Washington Post as a "strategic retreat."
Some agencies appear undeterred. The Twitter account of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, for example, posted a series of messages Tuesday seemingly at odds with new president's skepticism on climate change science, including: "Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years. #climate"
Federal workers have been on alert since Trump's transition, when a series of leaks from the new president's team raised the possibility that the new administration could target specific employees seen as contradicting its agenda. One memo to the Energy Department asked for the names of any employees who worked on Obama's climate initiatives — a request then-Secretary Ernest Moniz refused. Another memo to the State Department asked for details of existing programs aimed at promoting gender equality.
Not all employees appear all that worried about the latest moves, which come as most of Trump's Cabinet nominees are waiting for Senate confirmation. One current EPA official said the early moves, which include halting work on the agency's grants, raised eyebrows. But the official added, "If this freeze on hiring and on contracts, grants and interagency agreement continues for several months, then I will be concerned."
Still, the restrictions on public communications could be just the first volley against career employees. The Trump administration's budget is expected to advocate for deep cuts targeting disfavored domestic agencies in which Trump has little interest, compared with national security. A past budget blueprint from the Heritage Foundation, which has played a leading role in developing policy for Trump, calls for slashing programs inside the EPA, the Energy Department, the State Department and the National Endowment for the Arts.
"The hiring freeze is kind of like an opening jab, and then the right cross will be a budget that in some of the target agencies like EPA we assume are going to see deep, double-digit budget cuts," said Ruch, from PEER. "So we're dusting off legal research about reduction in force, return rights, things like that."
Ruch also warned that his group is fielding concerns that the hiring freeze could prevent even seasonal government hires, including firefighters at the Forest Service or national parks rangers during the busy summer season. "Those agencies run on seasonals," he said.
Within the first few days of the Trump administration, the hand-off of power varied from agency to agency.
Places with a confirmed Cabinet secretary, such as DHS and the Department of Defense, hummed along, according to agency sources, while employees at the other places, like USDA or the Department of Education, felt directionless and rudderless.
One senior official at the FDA said people there felt "mass confusion" and that "no one knows who is on first." The FDA's acting commissioner was set to have his first meeting with Trump's "beachhead" team Tuesday, the official added. For comparison, eight years ago, the Obama-Biden transition team showed up a week after the election.
Similarly, the White House OMB's website has been down since shortly after Trump was sworn in Friday afternoon. OMB is a key agency that helps manage the sprawling federal government and will be central to carrying out Trump's goal of shrinking the size of the federal government through potential budget cuts.
Over at the State Department, employees also waited. "Not much has happened. I've not personally met with anybody [from the Trump team,]" said a department spokesperson. "Most assistant secretaries have had one or two meetings, but it's far less developed than it was from Bush to Obama or Clinton to Bush. All transitions are different, but this one seems less developed."
Sources familiar with the issue said Trump's team did little to coordinate with State ahead of the president's move on Tuesday to advance the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada. The State Department is the lead agency in charge of reviewing the project.
Joanne Kenen, Sarah Karlin-Smith, Ben Weyl, Jeremy Herb, Ted Hesson, Arthur Allen, Michael Stratford, Caitlin Emma, Helena Bottemiller Evich, Jenny Hopkinson and Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.