Government bites back: Civil servants troll Trump, leak info

ByLISA LERER and JULIE BYKOWICZ, Associated Press AP logo
Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Across the government, an unprecedented digital insurrection is taking shape.

President Donald Trump spent much of his campaign bashing the federal government, a system he described as awash in "waste fraud and abuse."

Now, the bureaucracy is biting back.

In response to Trump's hiring freeze for federal agencies and a communications blackout, some official social media accounts have tweeted out messages decidedly at odds with his agenda and leaks are flowing into newsrooms from across the federal government.

Some agencies have been notably subversive in their messages, posting quotes and commentary that could be seen as trying to bait their new boss into a confrontation.

The Defense Department used Twitter on Wednesday to publicize an article about an Iraqi refugee who became a U.S. Marine.

"From refugee to #Marine. @USMC Cpl Ali J. Mohammed takes the fight to the doorstep of those who cast his family out," the department wrote of his fight in Iraq.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Trump's aides said a few hours earlier that the president is working out the details of plans to restrict refugees coming into the country.

Former Cabinet officials say the president would be wise not to underestimate the power of the civil service, which not only has the ability to slow the progress of new regulations but also the inside knowledge to sound alarms when needed.

Roughly 4,000 of more than 2 million federal government jobs can be filled by presidential appointment, meaning that career employees far outnumber the high-profile advisers, agency directors, special assistants, ambassadors and Cabinet officials selected by Trump and his team.

"Trump's statements have poisoned the well to a degree," said Christine Todd Whitman, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. "If the career staff doesn't believe you, if they don't trust you, then things can get very cumbersome."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday that certain government agencies are taking action to address an "inappropriate" use of social media.

But despite broad orders not to engage with the public or media without permission, it's going to be tricky for the White House to plug all the possible leaks or to stop public outbursts from angry or concerned government workers.

Even before he took office, employees at the Energy Department shared information about a Trump transition team request for the names of department staffers who'd worked on President Barack Obama's climate-change initiatives. The ensuing backlash prompted transition officials to disavow the questionnaire as a mistake.

On Wednesday, The Associated Press obtained a draft of an executive order showing that Trump is considering a major review of America's methods for interrogating terror suspects and the possible reopening of CIA-run "black site" prisons outside the United States. The same order would reverse the planned closure of the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Trump, who has no government experience and led a family-owned company, may not fully understand what, exactly, he's facing. His Cabinet, stocked largely with former business executives and members of Congress, has a more limited knowledge of the intricacies of the federal government, said Kathleen Sebelius, a secretary of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration.

"A CEO of a private company doesn't answer to shareholders or a board," said Sebelius. "If you say jump, somebody jumps. That, thank God, is not the way government operates."

Further limiting Trump's control of the federal bureaucracy has been the slow pace at which his own people are taking over. Trump has filled just 31 of the 690 key political positions requiring Senate confirmation, according to the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which is tracking executive branch nominations. Only four of his appointees have been confirmed by Congress.

"Right now, I'd say it's advantage government because you're up against people who don't know how the game is played," said Paul Light, a public service professor at New York University.

One of the first bureaucracies to enter a standoff with Trump was the usually straight-laced Office of Government Ethics, which helps executive branch employees resolve conflicts of interest before taking their posts.

Director Walter Shaub channeled Trump's online persona in a series of nine bravado-inflected tweets calling for Trump to sell off his financial holdings, which the president has said he will not do.

This week, Shaub was admonished by Democratic and Republican members Congress for his actions.

Most of the resistance is coming from agencies with a focus on environmental protection and scientific research. Several federal Twitter accounts have begun posting social media messages, some of them simply facts about climate change. Trump has notably expressed skepticism about climate science.

Tuesday tweets by South Dakota's Badlands National Park - one read, "Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years" - were deleted soon after they were posted; the National Park Service said the Badlands account had been compromised by a former employee.

The rebellion of the nation's parks went viral on Inauguration Day, when the official Twitter account of the National Park Service reposted side-by-side photographs of the massive crowd assembled for Obama's swearing-in ceremony and the less dense one for Trump's.

The account later deleted the tweet and apologized.


Associated Press writers Michael Sisak in Philadelphia and Michael Biesecker in Washington contributed to this report.

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