President Donald Trump’s three energy and environmental agency heads have been frequently touring swing states in the final month ahead of the election, raising questions about whether the administration is improperly using government resources to boost his reelection bid.
In October, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt all traveled to battleground states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, according to a BuzzFeed News review of agency press releases and social media posts.
A consistent message on many of these trips: Trump’s support for job creation, whether it's for manufacturing in Ohio, agriculture in Florida and Georgia, or energy in Pennsylvania, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has spurred widespread job losses and talks for a new aid package in Congress have collapsed.
The emphasis on jobs was often paired with praise of Trump's regulatory rollbacks or his watering down of strict Obama-era pollution rules. Not mentioned: how the Trump administration has eased permitting and pollution reporting standards for businesses, from refineries to oil wells, gutted climate rules aimed at cutting pollution and boosting resiliency, stripped forest protections, and downsized some national parks.
Government ethics experts are concerned the travel from top energy and environment officials could be used to win votes for Trump in key battleground states.
This pattern of recent travel “is evidence of a possible Hatch Act violation,” Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told BuzzFeed News, referring to the rule that bars officials from using federal resources to influence elections.
“I can't tell you that this absolutely violates it,” said Clark, “but I can tell you it absolutely should trigger an investigation.”
This week, Brouillette took a two-day trip to the swing state of Pennsylvania to tout the administration’s support for fossil fuels, touring a natural gas well site, participating in an energy roundtable discussion, and announcing an $80 million investment to research cutting the climate emissions of power plants through carbon capture and sequestration.
This is his second visit to the state in October, which comes less than a week after Trump told Pennsylvania voters from the national debate stage to “remember” that Democratic nominee Joe Biden wants “to destroy the oil industry.” (In fact, Biden said he wanted to move the country away from oil to combat climate change, a transition he has pledged would create new jobs and cut pollution.) Trump also campaigned in Pennsylvania this week and plans to go back this weekend.
While on the campaign trail, including during both debates, Trump has accused Biden of wanting to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. (Biden has explicitly said he will not do this.) Pennsylvania is the second-largest state producer of natural gas, which is primarily extracted through fracking. Although the fracking industry has helped prop up the state’s economy, it has also drawn criticism for causing air, water, and climate pollution. Many Pennsylvania voters support more regulation of the industry.
After visiting a natural gas site outside of Pittsburgh, Brouillette tweeted, “Under the leadership of President @realDonaldTrump, we are utilizing our nation's abundant energy resources and Americans are benefitting from the nation’s ability to produce the fuel and power we need for a strong, modern economy.” The next day, he tweeted, “the banning of fracking would be catastrophic to the region,” in an apparent dig at Biden.
The majority of Brouillette’s other business trips this month — to Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Montana — were also mostly to key battleground states.
The Department of Energy did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.
Brouillette is not the only one. Apart from a day trip to Virginia, EPA head Andrew Wheeler’s visits in October have been entirely to swing states. The outspoken environment agency head has visited Georgia, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
An EPA spokesperson defended Wheeler’s travel schedule as strictly business. “All travel has been on official business pertaining to agency priorities including cleaning up the Great Lakes, meeting with Puerto Rican stakeholders to discuss recovery efforts, curbing food waste, promoting water infrastructure, touring Superfund sites, and hearing from farmers directly on conservation efforts,” EPA spokesperson James Hewitt told BuzzFeed News in an email. “We of course keep the White House apprised of our travels.”
This week, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt traveled to Iowa to announce that military veterans, Gold Star families, and fifth-grade students get to visit national parks for free. Iowa is a surprisingly competitive state in the presidential race; Biden plans to campaign there on Friday. Earlier this month, Trump accused Gold Star families of infecting him with the coronavirus. The president has reportedly called Americans who have died in war “losers” and “suckers.”
Two of the secretary’s additional three trips this month were also to battleground states, including Nevada and Ohio.
“For the past couple of months, the Secretary has been traveling throughout the country to ensure the Department of the Interior is dutifully fulfilling its mission during the pandemic for the betterment of the American people,” Conner Swanson, a spokesperson for the Interior Department, told BuzzFeed News in an email. Elected officials from both political parties in Congress have been invited to participate in these visits, he added.
Other top Trump administration officials have found themselves in battleground states this month. National security adviser Robert O’Brien traveled to Minnesota and Wisconsin this week “for meetings with trade groups and defense industry manufacturers,” and the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement held a press event to announce arrests on Wednesday in Minnesota.
The Trump administration has repeatedly flouted the Hatch Act, meant to prevent public officials from using government funds to influence elections. When asked about possible violations of the law linked to the Republican National Convention, for example, Trump’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, told Politico: “Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares.”
Earlier this month, the office of the special counsel found that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue violated the rule when he called for Trump’s reelection during an August trip to North Carolina. Perdue will have to pay the Treasury Department for some of the trip’s costs.
Moreover, the special counsel’s office is currently investigating whether cabinet members, including Wheeler and Rick Perry, the former energy secretary, violated the Hatch Act with their travel preceding the 2018 midterm elections, according to Donald Sherman, deputy director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed the original complaint.
“It seems like a clear deployment of taxpayer-funded resources to battleground states, and it doesn't appear to be a coincidence given the striking frequency of agency heads going to these states,” said Nick Schwellenbach of the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight. “It raises the obvious question: Is there anything wrong about that?”’
When evaluating the travel of presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed officials for possible Hatch Act violations, the special counsel's office specifically looks at the proximity of these events to an election. The special counsel determined the Bush administration violated the law by dramatically increasing the frequency of official trips of certain high-level appointees in the three months before the 2006 midterm elections.
“We have every reason to believe that this is happening, that this is not being done in the normal course, and that this conduct is being coordinated by the White House,” Sherman said. “We know that the White House coordinated travel for vulnerable Republicans in 2018, and now it seems apparent the vulnerable Republican they are traveling for in 2020 is the president of the United States.”
Correction: Andrew Wheeler was misidentified in an image in an earlier version of this post.