By Adrian Shelley, Public Citizen
President Trump is most in his element when on the defensive. Attacking his critics allows Trump’s insults, rants, and meandering interpretations of reality to flow more easily.
This has come to typify Trump’s tweetstorms: long strings of tweets that are defensive, insulting, reactionary, and factually weak. Early in his presidency, social media analysts used trends in Trump’s twitter feed to identify when he was most likely to be tweeting. The finding? Angry, over-the-top tweetstorms come directly from the president.
This leadership style has filtered down into the Trump Administration. Last week we were made aware of some unusual behavior on the Twitter account for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA fired off a long series of Trump-flavored tweets during last weeks’ Congressional testimony by Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Wheeler was called to Capitol Hill to respond to a staff reportby Senator Tom Carper of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee criticizing the EPA for rollbacks of air pollution protections during the coronavirus pandemic. During the hearing, Democrats grilled Wheeler on a series of recent environmental protection rollbacks at the agency, as well as its moves to weaken enforcement actions and monitoring requirements during the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak. Critics of Trump’s EPA say the weakened enforcement will harm disadvantaged communities most.
When the dust cleared on May 20, the EPA had fired off forty-three tweets, most of them defending the agency’s record under Trump. Last week’s tweetstorm fit a clear pattern of Twitter use at the EPA. The agency had previously live tweeted Administrator Wheeler’s testimony to an Energy & Climate Subcommittee (February 27, 2020, 56 tweets) and to a budget subcommittee (March 4, 2020, 16 tweets). Other high-volume tweet days range from innocuous (Earth Day 2020, 15 tweets) to Trumpian (decrying “fake news” at Energy and Environment Daily, Sept. 19, 2019, 16 tweets).
Last week, EPA opened its Twitter salvo with the Trump favorite “fake news.”The Agency’s twitter feed linked to an EPA press release branding the staff report “a pandemic of political propaganda.” Then EPA launched into another defense of the “SAFE” Act, it’s rollback of vehicle pollution standards that will increase air pollution and sicken Americans. (Notably, defending the SAFE Act was the impetus for another 18 tweet storm on October 29, 2019.) From there, the tweet storm devolved into the sort of rambling, factually loose diatribe that has come to typify the Trump administration. The EPA used some classic Trumpisms, from unnecessary Capitalization, to complaining about “false media reports,” to random “quotes” used to delegitimize their subjects.
All of this would be easy enough to ignore, as indeed much of the nation has become accustomed to doing. But EPA was also guilty of playing fast and loose with science, an unforgivable breach by a governmental agency tasked with relying on science to protect public health. Unfortunately, it seems that once higher ups at the Trump Administration take over, science and facts have taken a back seat to rhetorical point scoring. Here are a few troubling examples:
EPA has already decided that the United States has “overcome” coronavirus.
EPA states that “the six main criteria air pollutants” have decreased by 74%. There are exactly six criteria air pollutants—no more or less—and each of them has varied in quantity across time and geography over decades. It isn’t possible to say anything meaningful about criteria pollution with a single number like “74%.” Without any factual support for the Tweet, it is unclear what EPA means.
We are ranked number one in the world for access to clean drinking water. In the ’60s, more than 40% of our nation’s drinking water systems failed to meet even the most basic health standards. Today, over 92% of community water systems meet all health-based standards.
This is a distinctly Trumpian claim. Number one worldwide! No explanation. No citation. Just number one.
To be clear, we aren’t claiming that Trump himself wrote these tweets. Only that the President’s rhetorical style has bled into his administrative agencies. EPA’s Twitter feed should be a resource for the public, not a tool for political grandstanding. Although many rank-and-file employees at EPA continue to do their jobs and deliver on their promise to the public, there are those at EPA willing to use the agency as just another tool for disinformation. EPA clearly disregards protocol and wields its Twitter feed like a weapon in defense of embattled EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.
President Trump may think that constantly being on the defensive is a good look for him. It certainly isn’t one for an agency dedicated to protecting our health and the environment.