USDA Faces Media Firestorm

Agency Memo Halting Media Engagement Leads to Backlash

A memo at a USDA agency on Monday led to claims that a ban on public information had been put in place by the Trump administration. USDA's acting chief found himself trying to put out the fire on Tuesday. (DTN file photo by Nick Scalise)

OMAHA (DTN) -- After a day of social media controversy, USDA's acting deputy secretary found himself on a call dealing with the kind of surprise he had been trying to avoid in the gap between new political leaders at the department.

Employees at the Agricultural Research Service on Monday received an internal email from Sharon Drumm, the ARS chief of staff, stating: "Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents. This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content."

ARS is USDA's lead scientific research arm and its scientists conduct studies on a wide range of agricultural topics, from livestock and crop production to human nutrition and environmental policy.

The website Buzzfeed broke the story early Tuesday morning over the internal memo, declaring, "USDA scientists have been put on lockdown under Trump." The fire on social media was quickly flamed and was not going to be easily put out.

Left trying to put out the fire was Michael L. Young, a 33-year employee who heads USDA's Budget Office. Young had been appointed by the outgoing Obama administration as acting deputy secretary for USDA. Young had put together his own three-page memo to USDA employees about how to manage the department between the Obama team and the incoming Trump team. However, he was completely caught off-guard by the ARS memo, and the reaction to it.

"Again, I'm a career official," Young told a group of reporters in an impromptu call late Tuesday afternoon. "I'm being a little bit cautious here. I don't want any surprises here on my watch."

Young told reporters that leadership at ARS issued its own guidance to its agency employees before Young's memo was issued. Young added he didn't understand what the basis for the ARS memo was because his own interim guidance was sent to agencies a little later in the day on Monday.

"I want to emphasize the ARS guidance was not reviewed by me. I would not have put that kind of guidance out. That doesn't reflect at all what my guidance is. My guidance has to do with policy-related announcements and that sort of thing," Young said.

He added, "I had my memo drafted up and ready to issue before the ARS guidance came out. I just was not a party to the ARS email. I didn't have a chance to see it. I didn't know it went out until these news stories appeared, frankly."

Young had drafted his memo on "Interim Procedures" based on the memo that went out to USDA employees in 2009 in the transition period before now-former President Barack Obama's political team came in. Young noted USDA has 100,000 employees around the world "taking all kinds of actions every single day." Young said it made sense to do what the Bush administration did in 2009 and issue some interim guidance until the new political team gets in place.

"I have a new incoming set of policy people. Those folks need to have an opportunity to get their feet on the ground and understand what is going on in this department," Young told reporters.

The move to halt public engagement comes in the first days of President Donald Trump's administration as he is still trying to get his cabinet leaders and lower-level political appointees in place in departments such as USDA. Trump did not name a potential USDA secretary until last week. Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is now awaiting a confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Young's memo asks USDA staffers for anything policy oriented to come forward to USDA headquarters for review. Further, the Office of the Secretary should be consulted on press releases and media inquiries "related to legislation, budgets, policy issues and regulations." The interim policies ask for review of blog posts and social media, and all social media "should be routed to the Office of the Secretary through the Office of Communications before it is added."

Further, Young's memo also states that all legislation assistance and plans to brief members of Congress should be routed through the Office of the Secretary as well.

Young stressed to reporters that the interim policies are not meant to put a lockdown on USDA scientists as articles had characterized. "I asked for people to ask for anything policy oriented to come forward for review," Young said. "I don't have anything in my guidance that says to stop everything or that you can't release anything."

Young added that he updated the interim guidance before the inauguration. "We have a lot of different folks in a lot of different time zones doing a lot of different work. They have been operating for the past eight years under a set of priorities and administration priorities; (they) have a new administration now.

"I just wanted to, again, as predecessors have done, to say, before we issue something as a policy-related announcement, before agencies take these other actions, we just need to have a review of it," Young said. "It's not meant to stop it. It's not even meant to delay it. It is common practices within the department to have press releases reviewed and any number of documents and reports -- all of that goes through a review process.

"I was trying to avoid any surprises," Young said. "Unfortunately, this email that came out earlier yesterday is causing some problem here. But again that is not my guidance."

USDA is not the only department dealing with orders to freeze public engagement during the transition. EPA staff have also received orders to freeze all grant and contract awards. The Associated Press has also reported that the agency's employees have been prohibited from issuing press releases, blogs, or any social media posts. The EPA's last news release was posted on Jan. 20, and its last tweet was sent Jan. 19.

Responding to questions on Tuesday, EPA issued a statement: "The EPA fully intends to continue to provide information to the public. A fresh look at public affairs and communications processes is common practice for any new administration, and a short pause in activities allows for this assessment."

During Tuesday's White House press conference, Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that he wasn't aware of any specific gag orders on regulatory bodies. "We're looking into it," he said. "I don't think it's any surprise that when there's an administration turnover that we're going to review the policies."

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

(AG)