The Trump administration’s gag orders on federal employees at some government agencies appear to violate federal law. Reps. Elijah E. Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Frank Pallone, Jr., Ranking Member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, sent a letter to the White House today, asking the administration to “take immediate action” to remedy the orders that sought to limit federal employees’ external communications.
News on the communication blackout broke on Tuesday, when several memos shared with the media showed that the Trump administration blocked scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture from communicating with the public and the press. A memo issued at the Department of Health and Human Services on Trump’s first day in office even prohibited federal employees from communicating with Congress. That’s in violation with a host of federal laws, including the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, the letter says.
That law was passed in 2012 to protect federal employees who report waste, fraud, and abuse. The whistleblower law, the letter says, requires the inclusion of a "mandatory statement that employee communications with Congress and Inspectors General are protected" in "any nondisclosure policy, form, or agreement."
“We request that the President issue an official statement making clear to all federal employees that they have the right to communicate with Congress and that he and his Administration will not silence or retaliate against whistleblowers,” the letter reads.
Yesterday, HHS said that the January 20th memo "pertains only to proposed or pending regulations,” according to Politico. "Contrary to erroneous media reports, HHS and its agencies continue to communicate fully about its work through all of its regular communication channels with the public, the media and other relevant audiences," an HHS official said. "There is no directive to do otherwise.”
In some cases, the orders for quiet were more like unforced errors. The Department of Agriculture walked away from a previous memo sent to employees of its scientific research unit calling for a suspension of news releases, photos, and fact sheets.
In their letter to White House Counsel Donald McGahn II, Cummings and Pallone wrote: “For more than a century, Congress has protected the rights of federal employees to communicate with Congress about waste, fraud, and abuse in the Executive Branch. ... We urge you to immediately rescind all policies on employee communications that do not comply with the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act and other federal statutes.”
Below you can read the letter in its entirety: