The Interior Department on Wednesday defended a campaign-style video posted to its official social media channels, following backlash that ensued over a typically apolitical government agency touting President Trump’s “historic feats for conservation.”
Critics accused the department of violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits executive government officials from participating in political activity while on duty, but exempts the President and the vice president.
On Tuesday, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt posted a video to his official Twitter account featuring majestic images of national parks, birds, mountains and plains over text praising the Trump administration. The video, which is set to an upbeat tune, abruptly throws in clips of the President and concludes with Trump remarking last month that his administration is “recommitting ourselves to preserving the awesome majesty of God’s great creation.”
The Interior Department’s official Instagram account posted the same video later Tuesday, which appears out of sync with the aesthetic of its feed usually featuring scenes of the nation’s great outdoors.
The next day, the Interior denied any wrongdoing with the social media posts.
In a statement shared with TPM on Wednesday, the Interior Department did not directly address the backlash over the pro-Trump social media posts, but focused on defending Bernhardt instead.
The Interior Department said that Bernhardt “transformed” the Departmental Ethics Office that is led by “dedicated career public servants.” The department cited Bernhardt beefing up its workforce and “dedicating more resources to the ethics office to ensure Interior has an environment of ethical compliance.”
The Interior Department added that the Office of Government Ethics recently recognized the department’s ethics program as “fully compliant” — a move the Interior touted as “an incredibly rare achievement for cabinet level programs.”
In its statement, the Interior thanked Bernhardt’s “unprecedented actions and the hard work of our career ethics attorneys” before denying that the video the department shared boosting Trump’s “historic feats for conservation” isn’t a violation of the Hatch Act.
“The Secretary’s video message and the Secretary’s tweet were reviewed by the Departmental Ethics Office, and it did not violate the prohibitions of the Hatch Act,” the Interior Department’s statement said.
The Interior’s defense of its questionable pro-Trump posts come on the heels of social media users swiftly accusing the department of committing a violation of the Hatch Act.
Among those critics was Tim Fullerton, who served as the director of digital strategy for the Interior Department during the Obama administration. He decried the video as “propaganda” and said he would’ve been fired if he posted similar content when he ran the Interior’s digital team in 2012.
The current Interior press secretary fired back at Fullerton in a tweet by insisting that sharing the Trump-friendly video on social media got approval from “career ethics attorneys.” The press secretary then attacked both Fullerton and the Obama administration.
Our tweets are approved by career ethics attorneys and thankfully no longer overseen by you.@Interior increased the number ethics staff by 250% to remove the rotten stench from the blatant failure of the prior administration to invest in the ethics program. https://t.co/v3aFjYobbS
— Interior Press Secretary (@DOIPressSec) October 28, 2020