The Trump administration continues to stretch the limits of decency and legality as it tries to turn the government into a propaganda arm of President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. The latest example comes from the Department of Interior, which released a Dear Leader-style video touting Trump’s environmental record less than a week before Election Day and saw its press secretary attack a former employee who criticized the video. The administration turned around less than 24 hours later and opened 16.7 million acres of the massive temperate rainforests of Alaska to logging through another agency.
Even by Trump standards, the whiplash, lies, and gaslighting are astounding. Oh, and the video’s contents may also violate a clause in an appropriations act Trump signed last year barring the use of any money outlaid in it “for publicity or propaganda purposes.”
So, let’s start with the facts. On Tuesday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt tweeted a video touting the Trump administration’s “historic feats for conservation.” The same video was also posted on the department’s Instagram page. Feel free to take a gander, I’ll wait:
Now, there are two problems here. One is the fact that the video doesn’t do anything to promote the department’s work or uplift any of the parks, wildlife refuges, or wilderness areas it oversees. Jordan Libowitz, the communications director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said touting its work or the places under its domain would be normal use of agency resources in an election year (or any time for that matter). But this isn’t normal.
“This video seems to be one in a pattern of Interior Department making propaganda video,” he said. “It seemed to be for the express benefit of President Trump. Tinpot dictators use every resource of their government to keep themselves in power.”
It follows in the vein of another video in August that touted Trump signing a bill into law without mentioning the law or its actual intended benefits for the agency or the public. Together, they show an attempt by the department to sugarcoat Trump’s environmental record. The new video’s timing is particularly notable since it comes just as climate and the environment have become a central part of the closing message for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
Libowitz said he doesn’t believe the video violates the Hatch Act, an ethics law that’s been invoked all too often in the Trump era, though other ethics experts have suggested it might. But he did note it likely violates Section 718 of last year’s appropriation bill, which notes federal agencies can’t use any of the money it for propaganda.
Then there’s the second issue with the video: It’s bullshit. Not mentioned in the video are the New Jersey-sized area of public land the administration has leased for oil and gas drilling, its shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument in the Southwest and opening the Arctic Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to drilling against tribes’ and the public’s wishes, its attacks on bedrock environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act, and ignoring scientists’ warnings on the border wall’s catastrophic impact on Southwest wildlife refuges and national parks.
As if to underscore the hollowness of the video, the Trump administration announced on Wednesday that it was opening up the Tongass National Forest—one of the last large tracts of temperate rainforest that’s managed by the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service—to logging. It fits a pattern of the administration steamrolling nature and turning over public lands to private companies to pillage.
The whole thing is ethically bankrupt and indefensible. But that didn’t stop the Department of Interior’s press secretary from going after people pointing that out on Twitter. The (anonymously run) account waded into the comment on Secretary Bernhardt’s tweet and then quote-tweeted criticism by a former Department of Interior employee, and it is... something.
The thing here is, the ethics team has been beefed up not to “remove the rotten stench from the blatant failure of the prior administration to invest in the ethics program,” but because Trump appointees have repeatedly violated laws. Former Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned under a pile of investigations, and Bernhardt found himself under investigation four days after being put on the job. (He was cleared, though the investigation found his behavior “unusual.”) Under Bernhardt, the agency signed off on Trump’s dubious fireworks show on the National Mall during the Republican National Convention, which was a vaudeville series of Hatch Act violations. Oh, and the beefing up may have actually watered down the ethics division. (Please excuse the mixed metaphors. I’m very tired.)
The whole getting-mad-online-at-former-employees thing could have a chilling effect on internal dissent, and also send civil servants streaming for the exits even faster than they already are. Which is probably the point. The whole episode shows what’s at stake in this election and why it’s not just environmental rollbacks Biden will have to deal with if he wins the White House.
“This is not normal and this should not be happening,” Libowitz said. “Presidents generally serve American people. I think we need to toughen our laws, then we need to make some of these things more explicit.”
Correction: 10/28/20, 2:04 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect the Department of Agriculture, not the Department of Interior is responsible for the Tongass National Forest logging decision. It’s still terrible, and the former park ranger who wrote this story regrets the error.