The spokesman for the Interior Department ordered agency employees to tweet pro-Trump content and tag the @realDonaldTrump Twitter handle in the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election, according to new Interior Department emails obtained by CREW. Agency officials raised concerns about whether doing so violated the Hatch Act, given that Trump used the account for campaigning, but ultimately complied with Communications Director Nicholas Goodwin’s demands.
The emails shed new light on the Trump administration’s extensive efforts to commandeer the federal workforce to promote Trump during his 2020 reelection campaign—efforts that included taxpayer-funded propaganda videos, elaborate fireworks displays, countless Hatch Act violations, and more. CREW obtained the records as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Interior Department, which remains ongoing. The lawsuit aims to uncover the extent of partisan promotion of the president within the agency during the 2020 campaign.
In one email sent just weeks before the election, Goodwin instructed staff at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to tweet an op-ed by USGS Director Jim Reilly praising legislation signed by President Trump. USGS tweeted the article as directed, but Goodwin didn’t think the tweet promoted Trump enough.
“This is an inadequate post….it’s clear that the effort was lacking,” Goodwin wrote. “Mentioning that the President (and using his official @realDonaldTrump handle) signed this legislation into law…would have been a good option.”
An employee wrote back, “We have…been careful…, given the election season, of potential Hatch Act issues. I would want to check with Ethics before using the @realDonaldTrump handle.” Goodwin was not swayed, responding that agency legal and ethics officials have “repeatedly stated…use of the handle is permissible with their clearance….You already know this.”
When one pro-Trump tweet from Secretary Bernhardt was criticized by a former Obama administration Interior official as taxpayer-funded “propaganda,” an employee sought Goodwin’s approval to respond harshly.
Once approved by Goodwin, the vitriolic response was tweeted from the Interior Press Secretary’s official account.
In another email sent on October 16, Goodwin again directed USGS officials to tweet an article touting Trump’s accomplishments while tagging the @realDonaldTrump account, and again was met with legal concerns by agency staff. Goodwin pressed forward, writing “there are no issues in doing this.” He then gave clear instructions:
USGS tweeted the message as Goodwin instructed, and Twitter users were quick to identify the tweet for what it was: promotional material for Trump amid his ongoing reelection campaign.
Interior employees had good reason to be concerned about tagging the @realDonaldTrump account. The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity while on duty, and tagging the @realDonaldTrump handle in official tweets—especially in the weeks leading up to the presidential election—could very well be considered a partisan political act.
The @realDonaldTrump account is not an official White House Twitter account; it is a personal account dating back to March 2009. Trump long used the account for partisan political purposes, including to promote his reelection campaign, attack his political opponents, and most recently to encourage followers to attend a protest in Washington DC that turned into a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Twitter permanently suspended the account last week “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.”
As of October 28, the @realDonaldTrump account profile linked directly to Trump’s campaign website, Vote.DonaldJTrump.com, which solicits users to provide their contact information for the campaign’s mailing list and states, “Fill out your information below to get everything you need to cast your vote and Make America Great Again!” Even after this link was added, Secretary Bernhardt and the Interior Press Secretary continued to tag the @realDonaldTrump handle in tweets from official agency accounts.
The president’s official White House Twitter handle is @POTUS — the account is designated by Twitter as a “US government account,” and it includes a link to the White House website rather than Trump’s campaign site.
Despite the availability of the official @POTUS account, Goodwin made clear in an email to agency communicators that “the @realDonaldTrump handle….should be used in referencing the President” in official Interior tweets.
The overtly partisan character of the @realDonaldTrump account was apparently lost on Interior’s legal and ethics officials, who, according to Goodwin, had “cleared our [tagging] of that handle.” If true, this seems to reflect a stunning lack of awareness of the president’s Twitter activity by the Interior employees responsible for ensuring agency-wide compliance with the Hatch Act. Even worse, it may be evidence that those officials approved the misuse of federal resources to promote a candidate for partisan political office.
A hallmark of the Trump administration has been the willingness to abuse the law to try to keep Trump in power. And like many abuses seen over the past four years, this episode at Interior evokes the very concern that drove Congress to enact the Hatch Act more than 80 years ago: preventing the vast federal workforce from being “employed to build a powerful, invincible, and perhaps corrupt political machine.” To ensure future administrations cannot ignore the law, common sense Hatch Act reform is needed, and it is needed now.