5 Ways the Trump Administration Uses Disinformation & Why We Need Oversight

February 25, 2019 | 11:55 am
Jesse Springer
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

Throughout history, special interests have worked studiously to deny, distort, or manipulate science to interfere with policy outcomes and rig the game so that they may continue profiting, usually at the expense of public health or environmental quality. The tobacco and fossil fuel industries have perhaps most infamously used these strategies to avoid public scrutiny and maintain the status quo. Sadly, the outcome is the delay or obstruction of science-based policies intended to protect the public.

Chris Borland is a UCS science champion who has spoken out about the dangers of special interests burying the science. Photo credit: Genna Reed/UCS

That is the theme of a hearing tomorrow at the House Natural Resources Committee, Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee: “The Denial Playbook: How Industries Manipulate Science and Policy from Climate Change to Public Health.” The committee took care to show the breadth of these disinformation campaigns by featuring witnesses whose lives have been directly impacted by science denial on climate, chemical exposure, opioids, and the risks of playing football.  Among the witnesses are Dr. David Michaels, expert on this phenomenon and author of Doubt Is Their Product, Chris Borland, a UCS science champion who ended his career with the NFL after concerns about chronic traumatic encephalopathy that NFL attempted to bury, Alexandra Precup, a Puerto Rico native displaced by Hurricane Maria, and Ryan Hampton, a national addiction recovery advocate. In their stories, we will hear the human cost of the use of the disinformation playbook, the piece that is too often left out of conversations about unethical corporate behavior.

The Playbook takes On a new meaning under the Trump administration

We outlined the different plays used by these special interests to interfere with the science in our Disinformation Playbook. The Trump administration has been notoriously anti-science and on a deregulation warpath, and has engaged in a whole suite of sleazy behaviors including burying data, scrubbing scientific information from agency websites, delaying or cancelling the release of important scientific studies, stacking science advisory committees, forbidding scientists from attending conferences, and the list goes on (and on). The tricky thing is figuring out which came first: the focus on deregulation or the infiltration of corporate interests at top posts at the federal agencies.

President Trump and his political appointees have embraced the use of one play in particular that we call “The Fix:” manipulating government officials or processes to inappropriately influence policy. This has played out through the revolving door of former employees of big industry entering the government to work on the same issues they previously worked on and then doing the bidding of their former employer or business associate. The use of this play on a range of issues has led to the rollback of protections that were in place to protect us from pollution in the air we breathe to contaminants in the products with which our children play.  While corporate interests seem to only think in terms of dollars, cents, and green money bags, there are real victims who are suffering as a direct result of these destructive policy changes.

Here are just five of the myriad ways the Trump administration has enabled special interests to interfere in science-based policymaking:

  1. Air pollution rules rolled back: William Wehrum is a lawyer and lobbyist confirmed to lead the EPA Office of Air and Radiation (OAR) who while nominated, assembled the Utility Air Regulatory Group comprised of the big-name utility companies to chart out which policies under his purview should be rolled back. Once confirmed, he quickly got to work reconsidering the mercury rule which limited mercury emissions from power plants by counting co-benefits and the New Source Review rule which required that coal plants had to receive permits before conducting improvements. While at Hunton & Williams, his corporate clients included Koch Industries, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and others in the auto and petrochemical industries. Now the entities who pollute the air we breathe have a friend willing to ignore the body of evidence and make misguided policy decisions to protect their bottom lines.
  2. Plan to ban the pesticide, chlorpyrifos, reversed: Scientists at the EPA under the Obama administration recommended that the pesticide, chlorpyrifos, be banned due to the science associating exposure with developmental neurotoxicity. After the decision was announced, lawyers representing the largest maker of the chemical, Dow Chemical, sent a letter to the EPA, Department of Interior, and Department of Commerce asking the agencies “to set aside”the results of government studies showing that the insecticide is harmful to children’s health. Dow Chemical is not a stranger to the Trump administration as it gave $1 million to fund President Trump’s inaugural activities, and its chairman and CEO, Andrew Liveris, was a key advisor to the Trump Administration, heading up the president’s now defunct American Manufacturing Council. The case is now being disputed in the courts, but the details point to the government making a 180 degree policy turn by prioritizing special interests over independent science.
  3. Climate skeptic leading White House initiative: The White House recently announced plans to create the Presidential Committee on Climate Security, a reinvention of the red team, blue team idea advanced by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. William Happer has been handpicked by President Trump to run the committee. Happer is known for dismissing the scientific consensus around climate change and taking such extreme stances that more carbon dioxide will actually benefit society. He is the co-founder of the CO2 Coalition, a front group funded by the fossil fuel-linked Koch Industries. With Happer at the helm of this committee, the powerful industries that have denied the science on climate change for decades will be able to push their agenda at the highest level of government.
  4. Vehicle standards weakened at the behest of the auto industry: Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt issued a redetermination of the appropriateness of the EPA’s fuel efficiency standards through 2025 in spring 2018 after listening to request of automakers the year before. This decision was entirely political, as the large body of evidence points to these standards improving consumer choice, decreasing emissions, and boosting the economy. The auto industry is no stranger to the disinformation playbook, as it has spent decades twisting the science to suit the needs of the industry and undermine the public interest.
  5. Endangered species protections take backseat to industry wishes: During his tenure at the DOI, Former Secretary Zinke went out of his way to cater to the oil, gas, and mining industries. In September 2018 at the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association luncheon he told the room, “Our government should work for you, the oil and gas industry.” His former deputy secretary and now acting secretary, David Bernhardt, worked as a lobbyist for oil and chemical companies in the 1990s and resumed work as a Washington lobbyist for the oil and mining industries in 2009. Zinke named Kathleen Benedetto, the co-founder of the Women’s Mining Coalition, as co-lead of an effort to conduct an internal review of the sage grouse conservation plans after she helped with language on legislation that would block funding for conservation efforts for the species. Between March and November 2017, she had 75 meetings with mining, oil, and gas industry groups, more than double the amount of meetings she held with environmental organizations. And in December 2018, the DOI moved forward with a plan to reduce protections for sage grouse on 9 million acres of land, now opened up for oil and gas drilling leases. Clearly the agenda of the oil and gas industry was prioritized over the critical habitat for endangered wildlife.

Government officials should not be in cahoots with the industries they are regulating if there is to be any objectivity and independence in evidence-based decisionmaking. As I laid out above, when industry interference prevents government from making decisions based on science, it undermines our democracy and the public suffers.

I will be attending the hearing and livetweeting from tomorrow’s event, so be sure to follow @UCSUSA if you don’t already and tune in for updates. I would also urge you to write to your member of congress if they are on the House Natural Resources Committee to show your support for strong congressional oversight and for paying attention to this incredibly important issue of the real-life impacts of science denial. Click here to see if your representative is on the committee. If they’re not, you still have an important role to play—all representatives can help encourage and support House committees to make full use of their responsibility to hold agencies accountable for serving the public, not special interests. Take action here to tell your representatives that they need to conduct more oversight on government agencies to ensure that special interests aren’t dictating what should be science-based policies.