Last week, the president's former EPA transition team leader Myron Ebell cryptically warned that Trump would likely make staffing cuts at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In an interview with the Associated Press on Thursday, he remarked that up to half of the agency's workforce could be eliminated.
An internal memo—first leaked to Motherboard by an EPA employee and later confirmed by the agency—sent to EPA staff by a senior White House advisor today indicates that Ebell's claims are causing unrest within the agency. The memo doesn't mention Ebell by name or say that the agency won't see major staff cuts, but notes that much of what's being reported in the news is not accurate, and that "no final decisions have been made with regard to the EPA."
Ebell's interview came less than a week after Trump implemented a communications ban at the EPA, and froze the creation of all new contracts and grants.
"Let's aim for half and see how it works out, and then maybe we'll want to go further," Ebell said. "President Trump said during the campaign that he would like to abolish the EPA, or 'leave a little bit.' I think the administration is likely to start proposing cuts to the 15,000 staff, because the fact is that a huge amount of the work of the EPA is actually done by state agencies. It's not clear why so many employees are needed at the federal level."
Ebell wasn't officially speaking for the White House at the time—and admits he's never actually met Trump in person—but his views on climate change and scientific integrity aren't that different from those belonging to the president. Ebell has long been criticized by environmental groups for seeding doubt in climate science, and trying to dispel what he has called "the myth" of global warming.
As such, his nomination to manage the overhaul of the nation's foremost environmental agency last year was shocking to many.
A legislative director at the Natural Resources Defense Council told the Washington Post today that Ebell's suggestion to cut the EPA's workforce would "cripple environmental protection across the board, putting at risk the health and well-being of every man, woman and child in our country."
This afternoon, EPA staff received the memo from Don Benton, Senior White House Advisor currently overseeing the agency's transition, addressing "final decisions" that employees might have seen in the news. It appears to dispel concerns about Ebell's comments, but Benton didn't specifically reference the former transition leader in his note.
Benton's memo seems to underscore the fact that Ebell plays no role inside the White House. Ebell recently told reporters that Trump still intends to pull out of the Paris Agreement, but no word has come from the administration about the climate treaty. The email also downplays the severity of Trump's EPA mandates, such as one that requires agency scientists to vet their public-facing studies and data through political appointees. The disproportionate attention paid to the EPA by reporters, Benton claims, is due to the "important nature of the work" administered by the agency.
As the memo says, "no final decisions have been made with regard to the EPA," so neither we nor EPA staff know if cuts are coming or how large they will be. However, the mere existence of the memo to EPA staff telling them not to panic over what they're seeing in the news is yet another sign of a chaotic transition process.
The full memo is published below:*
After one week on the job leading the transition team, I would like to say thank you to the many career professionals here at the EPA who have been working with me, White House Liaison Charles Munoz, and the transition team. I have served many roles in my life in both the private sector and in government. I want the EPA team to know that the people I have worked with here are among the best I have ever had the opportunity to work with.
We all know that political transitions are never easy. Carter to Reagan in 1981, Bush to Clinton in 1993, Clinton to Bush, and the Bush to Obama have all been unique and possessed their own challenges. We are now working our way through the transition from President Obama to President Trump.
Due to the important nature of the work that is done here at EPA, we are falling under a greater media microscope than most agencies.
I, like many of you, am surprised each morning by what I read in the newspaper and see on TV news shows, because much of what we see is just not accurate.
In addition, many news outlets are quoting individuals who are no longer serving on the EPA transition team. I am not able to validate or reject the statements made by these individuals, since I am not directly working with them, and I have not seen many of the documents referenced in the stories.
I cannot tell you today what the final decisions from the White House, from our new Administrator, and from the Congress will be. I can tell you that despite what you read and see on TV, no final decisions have been made with regard to the EPA.
Changes will likely come, and when they do, we will work together to implement them.
One thing I am certain of is that the transition team is committed to working with you to carry out the core mission of the EPA - To Protect Human Health and the Environment.
Senior White House Advisor*
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.