EPA Email Error Miscasts Coal-Country Senator as Trump Critic

  • Agency says Democrat’s quote mistakenly attributed to Capito
  • Inclusion follows other acts of bureaucratic resistance

When the Environmental Protection Agency sent out a roundup of quotes praising President Donald Trump’s move to dismantle Obama-era climate policies, the first comment stuck out.

“President Trump has chosen to recklessly bury his head in the sand” by reversing regulations tackling “the greatest environmental challenge of our lifetime,” Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican senator from West Virginia coal country, was quoted in the news release as saying.

Shelley Moore Capito

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The only problem? Capito never said any such thing. 

Instead, the quote actually came from a Democratic senator from Delaware, Tom Carper, who hasn’t been shy about criticizing Trump for trying to dismantle his predecessor’s efforts to address climate change. Trump has called climate change a “hoax” and signed an order Tuesday to begin rescinding a series of EPA rules that would curb carbon-dioxide emissions.

EPA spokesman John Konkus said the whole thing was an "unfortunate" error -- a case of an internal draft "mistakenly sent with a quote that belonged to Senator Carper but was wrongly attributed to Senator Capito, whom we originally meant to quote." About an hour and a half after the first release went out, the EPA sent out a new corrected version noting that an earlier draft "misattributed a quote from another senator to Senator Capito."

Staff Resistance

Still, the release was meant to be a collection of praise, and didn’t include any of the other criticisms of Trump’s actions from environmental groups, Democratic lawmakers or even some corporate leaders. It also follows signs of resistance from career staff. The Twitter account for the Badlands National Park Service sent messages highlighting the growing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere soon after Trump’s inauguration. The missives were later deleted and attributed to a former employee who still had the account’s credentials. 

And in a letter published Thursday in the New York Times, an environmental scientist at the agency described being "very saddened" to be toiling "under an EPA administrator whose role it is to dismantle the agency that he leads."

"I walk among my colleagues like a zombie in a bad dream," Michael Kravitz, the scientist, wrote.  "I hope the nightmare ends soon."

Rogue NASA

Tom Carper

Photographer: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg

The union representing agency employees last month launched an online campaign against Administrator Scott Pruitt’s agenda under the headline, "Save the Environment - Save the U.S. EPA." 

Career civil servants and outsiders also have started up new social media accounts under names such as "Rogue NASA" and "altEPA" to provide a running commentary against administration actions. 

Some Trump supporters have complained that "a deep state" of Obama holdovers is embedded throughout the federal bureaucracy trying to undercut the president.

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"There are people that burrow into the government after an administration," White House spokesman Sean Spicer said when asked about the phenomenon on March 21. It’s "no huge secret" that of course, "there’s people after eight years of Obama that found their way into government," Spicer added, without addressing their motivations.

Environmental activists who oppose the new administration’s policies, said acts of bureaucratic resistance -- big and small -- are an important check on Trump and Pruitt.

"It’s vitally important for EPA staff and administrators to continue to work to protect communities and the planet from poison and destruction. We hope they are able to use all the tools available to them to resist Scott Pruitt and Donald Trump’s attempts to erase the work and legacy of their office," said Travis Nichols, a spokesman for Greenpeace. "In many cases, the EPA is the only thing standing between a community and destruction."

The initial message misspelled Capito’s first name, and it would be highly unusual to see Democrat Carper quoted alongside the likes of the American Petroleum Institute, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity and the conservative Energy and Environment Legal Institute.

Capito’s real quote, for the record, commended Trump for rolling back "one of the most harmful acts of overreach by the Obama administration."

"Stopping this disastrous plan will preserve America’s coal industry, expand our manufacturing renaissance that is reliant upon affordable energy, and protect American families from unprecedented hikes in their electric bills," she said. 

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