Week 147: Trump Officials Stonewall Investigators . . . at the EPA. (What Did You Think We Were Talking About?)

Plus, the EPA’s secret science rule is so “1984,” and Trump declares himself “very much into climate,” which is so “Pinocchio.”

November 15, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth (Jackson photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Stonewall Jackson

Ryan Jackson, chief of staff at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, refuses to meet with the agency’s inspector general. His primary rationale? The IG, who is responsible for investigating waste, abuses of power, and other illegality inside the EPA, won’t tell Jackson exactly what the meeting is about.

“The fact that you cannot and will not provide the subject of what you want to meet with me about is unprofessional, and I’m not participating,” Jackson wrote in an email last month.

On one level, Jackson’s complaint seems fair. When someone calls a meeting, he or she should at least fill in the subject heading. But delve a tiny bit deeper and you’ll realize that Jackson’s insistence on a full explanation prior to the meeting isn’t about office etiquette. It’s indicative of an agency so immersed in ethical inquiries that it can’t keep track of its own transgressions.

Jackson himself is currently involved in at least two inspector general investigations. Last week, Politico reported that the EPA inspector general is looking into whether Jackson routinely destroyed documents that he was legally required to maintain. The missing documents allegedly include schedules from top EPA brass and correspondence with lobbyists like Richard Smotkin, who helped arrange a junket to Morocco for disgraced EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and was then promptly hired as a foreign agent by the government of Morocco. You can see why the Trump administration might want any communications with Smotkin to disappear.

In a separate investigation, the IG is very curious about Jackson’s attempt to influence the congressional testimony of the former head of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors. Back in 2017, shortly after Pruitt had decimated or eliminated some of EPA’s science advisory groups, Jackson privately urged environmental chemist Deborah Swackhamer not to go into detail about the firings in her upcoming testimony. He advised her to stick to agency talking points instead.

Jackson met with the inspector general once about his intervention into Swackhamer’s testimony but reportedly walked out before the meeting was over. He’s now refusing to appear for a second set of questions. In response, the IG demanded that EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler explain the stonewalling to Congress.

The EPA’s position seems to be that the administrator gets to decide what information is provided to investigators, and which officials will answer questions. Gosh, that strategy sure seems familiar.

The Unscience Rule

Details of the EPA’s so-called secret science rule emerged this week. The plan would prohibit the agency from basing its regulations on any research for which the full underlying dataset is not publicly available. For many human health studies, however, publishing the underlying data—in other words, the medical records of individual study participants—would be both illegal and unethical for privacy reasons. But the secret science rule is not a genuine attempt at transparency. It’s a pretext to throw out decades’ worth of peer-reviewed scientific research that doesn’t favor industry.

There is no reason to believe that the research the EPA is targeting for erasure is unsound. To the contrary, most of the studies have been confirmed or supported by years of other research with similar results.

Take the famous Six Cities study, a landmark Harvard investigation that analyzed how air pollution affected thousands of people living in various U.S. metropolises. Fossil fuel companies hate it, because it proves that people living in areas with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from lung cancer and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The study was published in 1993, and a mountain of similar studies have since confirmed the link between air pollution and mortality. The research has now moved beyond correlational epidemiology, and basic science has revealed the biological mechanism behind the deaths caused by polluted air.

The Six Cities conclusions sit at the center of a field of study that supports and reinforces it. That’s why the administration is attacking the process by which the science is collected. It’s not enough to ignore one study; the administration has to undermine the entire structure of scientific research.

The potential consequences of this rule are vast. If we pretend that this research doesn’t exist, the administration has a much stronger case in deleting the safeguards and rules based on the data.

Winston Smith, the protagonist of the dystopian classic 1984, had a job in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth deleting all historical references to people who had become enemies of the state. They became, to use George Orwell’s word, “unpersons.” The Trump administration is creating unscience—science that is erased from the public memory because it doesn’t conform to the ruling party’s agenda.

Un Poco Loco

Shall we end on a lighter note?

Responding to an audience member at the Economic Club of New York this week, President Donald John Trump—I’m using his full name so you don’t think this is a case of mistaken identity—declared, “I’m very much into climate.” He went on to attack some Democrats because they are . . . very much into climate.

He also said, “I consider myself in many ways to be an environmentalist,” before calling environmentalists “loco.”

“I think I know more about the environment than most people,” Trump continued.

I’d like to see the underlying data to support that comment.

Demand real leadership at the EPA

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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