Emails show Interior ethics officials raised concerns over October video promoting Trump
Ethics officials at the Interior Department warned communications staff about posting a video in October touting President Trump’s conservation record that critics characterized as propaganda, according to emails obtained by The Hill.
The video in question praises the “Trump administration conservation record” and was shared by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who tagged President Trump in his Twitter post.
The video drew swift criticism from watchdog groups that said it may have violated ethics laws and the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from electioneering at work.
Newly revealed emails shared with The Hill show that Interior’s own ethics staff raised similar concerns before the video was made public.
Heather Gottry, director of Interior’s Departmental Ethics Office, wrote in one email that she wanted to “flag some concerns for further consideration,” noting the video focused on past actions of the department rather than a new initiative as they would prefer.
“In context, a tweet and video highlighting the ‘Trump Administration Conservation Record’ published one week before election day where President Trump is a candidate for reelection, may be perceived by outside stakeholders as a ‘closing argument’ for the President’s reelection as opposed to an official communication announcing a specific government activity or achievement,” Gottry wrote, noting that it did not directly violate the Hatch Act.
“Given the proximity to the election, the overall tone and tenor of the video may be viewed by outside stakeholders as similar to campaign or other partisan political advocacy videos, and as a result may prompt questions or concerns to be raised with the U.S. Office of the Special Counsel,” she added.
Interior communications director Nick Goodwin appeared to take that as a green light for distribution, thanking Gottry in an email for the review and “confirming that the video/tweet is in compliance and not a violation.”
A separate set of documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) show Interior officials wanted to “push back” after an Obama-era Interior employee criticized the video and said he would have been fired for posting similar content.
“This is a propaganda video created with your tax dollars meant to bolster the President’s chances of being re-elected. This is way outside the lines,” Tim Fullerton, former digital strategy director at Interior, tweeted at the time.
The emails, along with texts obtained by CREW, suggest Goodwin was involved with the department’s Twitter response to Fullerton.
“I want to push back on this,” an Interior employee wrote to Goodwin via text.
“Our tweets are approved by career ethics attorneys and thankfully no longer overseen by you. @Interior increased the number of ethics staff by 250% to remove the rotten stench from the blatant failure of the prior administration to invest in the ethics program,” the agency employee wrote.
Goodwin gave the go-ahead, and that line was later tweeted by the Interior press office.
The emails obtained by CREW also show Goodwin wanted more promotion of Trump in agency tweets.
Goodwin pushed employees at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), part of the Interior Department, to use Trump’s Twitter handle in posts, even as they raised concerns over legal issues, the documents show.
“This is an inadequate post. In comparison to other tweets that USGS puts out, it’s clear that the effort was lacking,” Goodwin wrote in late September, in discussing how to share on social media an op-ed written by the head of USGS.
“Mentioning that the President (and using his official @realDonaldTrump handle) signed this legislation into law authorizing USGS to establish the National Volcano Early Warning System to better protect communities would have been a good option as illustrated by the director,” he wrote.
Those efforts clearly alarmed USGS communications director Gavin Shire, who flagged them as a potential violation of the Hatch Act.
“We have also been careful, and warned … given the election season, of potential Hatch Act issues. I would want to check with Ethics before using the @RealDonaldTrump handle,” he responded to Goodwin.
Goodwin shot back that use of the handle was already cleared by ethics officials and Interior lawyers.
“Both offices have repeatedly stated to Bureau communicators – and we have reiterated – that use of the handle is permissible with their clearance, which as I previously mentioned the language was already cleared. You already know this,” he wrote.
CREW has argued that using the @realDonaldTrump handle instead of the official @POTUS account would likely violate the Hatch Act if used to promote the president in the days leading up to the election.
“Interior employees had good reason to be concerned about tagging the @realDonaldTrump account. The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity while on duty, and tagging the @realDonaldTrump handle in official tweets—especially in the weeks leading up to the presidential election—could very well be considered a partisan political act,” the group wrote in a report published Wednesday.
Goodwin said the posts in question were all cleared with guidance from Interior’s ethics officials.
“My entire team worked in lockstep with career ethics [officials] and career lawyers at the department to ensure any mention of the president is legally and ethically compliant. There is not an exception to that rule,” Goodwin told The Hill on Wednesday when reached for comment.
Emails provided by Goodwin show he cleared multiple posts with ethics officials alongside sharing a Hatch Act guidance for social media employees within Interior.
“Given the proximity to the upcoming election, there have been a couple of questions regarding our communications and social media policy, specifically what is permissible and ethical for distribution,” he wrote in a note to staff in early October.
“We are all a part of President Trump’s Administration in service to the American people,” he said, adding it was “not only permissible but encouraged” to highlight presidential actions.
“This includes specifically highlighting actions directly taken by President Trump. You all have done a good job of highlighting Executive Orders, enacted legislation, Presidential Memorandums and other such actions in press releases when we act on these directives. This will continue,” he said.
–Updated at 3:19 p.m.