Jeff Jardine

Something seemed strange to ex-Secretary Veneman about information ban on Ag Dept.

Then-Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman speaks to reporters in 2003. She thought a supposed gag order from President Donald Trump seemed a little odd.
Then-Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman speaks to reporters in 2003. She thought a supposed gag order from President Donald Trump seemed a little odd. The Associated Press

A story out of Washington, D.C., this week – and there have been many of equal shock value – stated that the Trump administration has banned U.S. Agriculture Department officials from talking to reporters and issuing news releases or reports. It left Ann Veneman a bit perplexed.

The Modesto native served as agricuture secretary during George W. Bush’s first term in the Oval Office. She stepped down in 2005 to head UNICEF, traveling all over the world to aid children and mothers in underdeveloped countries before leaving that post in 2010. She lives in New York, but plans to move back to Modesto in early February.

When Veneman heard about the supposed information blackout at the Agriculture Department, and also at the Environmental Protection Agency, something didn’t seem quite right regarding her former department.

“We had press releases that went through our press office,” she said. “But we didn’t have the social media and the blogs back then.”

No matter. As ag secretary, Veneman had final say when it came to dealing publicly with mad cow disease or any other highly publicized dilemma of the time. Nor did it make sense to her this time, even though the Trump administration is unabashedly anti-climate change, anti-environment and anti-science overall, which explains the information blackout at the EPA. Sonny Perdue, a professed climate-change denier and President Donald Trump’s nominee to head the department, won’t go before the Senate for confirmation until mid-February.

In this case, though, the presumption of an information blackout preceded any such order from the White House.

“It’s all speculation,” Veneman said.

When the transfer of power between administrations begins, the new administration’s transition team generally sends people to work with each department, as was the case when Bush prepared to take over for Bill Clinton in 2001. That hasn’t been the case at Agriculture, which continues to operate under employees including one whose tenure at the agency dates back to the first Reagan administration.

A few minutes after we spoke by phone Wednesday, Veneman forwarded an online newsletter called The Hagstrom Report, which monitors the goings-on in agriculture including the Department of Ag and its Agriculture Research Service. It’s one of the ways she stays informed about the department a dozen years after leaving it.

The newsletter reported the furor began with an internal memo sent Monday morning by a staff member, and not directly from anyone in the White House. It read “Hello again All – Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not replace any public-facing documents. This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.”

In other words, clam up. Organizations of scientists immediately criticized the memo. One, the blog reported, read: “That the administration has moved so quickly to clamp down on scientists shows that the Trump administration is more focused on lifting rules on polluters than keeping our air and water clean.”

The administration told National Parks Service employees to stop tweeting, an order some have blatantly ignored. They’ve banned reporters from certain media outlets from covering Trump on the campaign trail and now in the White House pressroom. The administration’s reputation for trying to intimidate and stifle the media precedes itself.

Thus, given Trump’s disdain for science and environmental issues throughout the campaign, their reaction wasn’t surprising. It compelled a 33-year civilian employee in charge until Trump’s people take over to deny sending or even seeing the memo before the staffer clicked the “send” button.

He said he merely wanted everything to go through the office of the secretary before being released, no different than when President Barack Obama took office in 2009.

Clearly, Trump is reveling in his power. In this case, though, the Ag Department gagged (and then un-gagged) itself before he got the chance.

But the week is still young.