When I’d first heard that the Environmental Protection Agency has hired a media research firm, it didn’t immediately sound alarming. Plenty of federal agencies, under Democratic and Republican administrations, have hired media research firms to better understand how departments are reaching the public, collect media clips, identify which media outlets are most closely covering their issues, etc.
But the closer one looks, the more it appears Donald Trump’s EPA has a very different goal in mind.
The New York Times reported over the weekend, for example, that a few EPA employees – one in D.C., one in Seattle, and one in Philadelphia – at different times raised concerns with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt about the agency’s direction and priorities. Soon after, “requests were submitted for copies of emails written by them that mentioned either Mr. Pruitt or President Trump, or any communication with Democrats in Congress that might have been critical of the agency.”
The requests came from a Virginia-based lawyer working with America Rising, a Republican campaign research group that specializes in helping party candidates and conservative groups find damaging information on political rivals, and which, in this case, was looking for information that could undermine employees who had criticized the E.P.A.
Now a company affiliated with America Rising, named Definers Public Affairs, has been hired by the E.P.A. to provide “media monitoring,” in a move the agency said was intended to keep better track of newspaper and video stories about E.P.A. operations nationwide.
Mother Jones reported last week that Pruitt’s office signed a no-bid contract with Definers, which was co-founded by Matt Rhodes, a Republican operative who managed Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.
The EPA insists the taxpayer money is simply funding a media clipping service. And yet, the developments have reportedly “created a wave of fear” among EPA employees, and it’s easy to understand why. The New York Times also reported over the weekend:
One of the top executives of a consulting firm that the Environmental Protection Agency has recently hired to help it with media affairs has spent the past year investigating agency employees who have been critical of the Trump administration, federal records show.
The firm, Definers Public Affairs, based in Virginia, specializes in conducting opposition research, meaning that it seeks to find damaging information on political or corporate rivals.
A vice president for the firm, Allan Blutstein, federal records show, has submitted at least 40 Freedom of Information Act requests to the E.P.A. since President Trump was sworn in. Many of those requests target employees known to be questioning management at the E.P.A. since Scott Pruitt, the agency’s administrator, was confirmed.
Mr. Blutstein, in an interview, said he was taking aim at “resistance” figures in the federal government, adding that he hoped to discover whether they had done anything that might embarrass them or hurt their cause.
It’s worth emphasizing that America Rising and Definers Public Affairs are not literally the same entity, but the Times found that they share “at least nine current and former executives,” and Definers “shares an office building” near D.C. with the multiple arms of America Rising.
Under normal political circumstances, this is the sort of thing that might generate a congressional hearing or two.