Over a bouncy tune, the video flashes stunning images of birds, mountains and plains over text hailing President Trump for “preserving the awesome majesty of God’s great creation.” It was shared Tuesday evening on the official Twitter account of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who suggested it celebrated Trump’s “historic feats for conservation.”
But in the final week before a presidential election, one former Interior Department appointee had another term for the clip: propaganda.
“This is a propaganda video created with your tax dollars meant to bolster the President’s chances of being re-elected,” tweeted Tim Fullerton, who was director of digital strategy for the Interior Department during the Obama administration. “This is way outside the lines.”
Fullerton was among the critics on Tuesday night who accused Bernhardt and the Interior Department of using agency resources to promote a video supporting Trump’s reelection in violation of the Hatch Act, an anti-corruption law Congress passed in 1939.
The Interior Department didn’t immediately respond to a message from The Washington Post about the video late on Tuesday. On Twitter, the department’s press secretary responded to Fullerton by claiming the agency had “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.”
“Our tweets are approved by career ethics attorneys and thankfully no longer overseen by you,” the press secretary tweeted at Fullerton.
In an interview with The Post, Fullerton, 42, said he was struck by how the video’s tone, structure and timing of its release placed the Interior Department, which historically has not been overtly political, in the middle of a contentious election between Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
“These are government resources that are meant to promote the work of the department or public lands. It shouldn’t be used this way,” said Fullerton, who now works in marketing in the private sector. “It’s really upsetting to think about the thousands of people at the Interior Department who are being subjected to this. They shouldn’t have to deal with this.”
From anonymous federal workers to marquee names like former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, Trump administration officials have repeatedly flouted norms and raised legal questions when it comes to separation between governing and politicking.
As Trump appointees flout the Hatch Act, civil servants who get caught get punished
As The Post’s Paul Sonne reported Tuesday, White House national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien has come under fire for using taxpayer funding to visit two swing states in what critics called an attempt to help boost the president in Wisconsin and Minnesota. The White House defended O’Brien’s travel as necessary to protect the mineral industry and defense supply chains.
O’Brien’s travels to swing states days before election raise ethics concerns
At the Republican National Convention in August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was accused by watchdog groups of violating the Hatch Act after he gave a speech from Israel, a move the State Department said was made in his personal capacity and did not involve government resources. Democratic leaders announced this week that the Office of Special Counsel was investigating whether Pompeo’s convention speech violated the Hatch Act.
Also, acting homeland security secretary Chad Wolf was decried by critics for leading a taped naturalization ceremony for five newly minted citizens on White House grounds with Trump — a scene that was packaged as part of the GOP convention’s prime-time programming. At least one of the citizens being sworn in did not know she would appear on video at the convention.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows dismissed such allegations of federal violations, telling Politico in August that “nobody outside of the Beltway really cares” about the Hatch Act.
On Tuesday, critics said they do care and accused Bernhardt of again violating the law. The tweets from Bernhardt and the Interior Department’s press secretary were heavily ratioed by both liberal and conservative detractors questioning the political intent of the video and the department’s response to criticism.
“This is the government of the United States?” said David Frum, an editor of the Atlantic and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, of the department’s response to Fullerton. “The United States of America? That United States?”
Fullerton remembered a much different scenario at the Interior Department eight years earlier. In the run-up to the 2012 election, 7-Eleven ran a promotion in which customers could get their coffee in a blue cup for President Barack Obama or a red cup for his opponent, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R). Fullerton said the Interior Department banned the cups, seeing them as too political.
“We weren’t even allowed to bring those 7-Eleven cups into the building,” Fullerton said. “That seems so long ago.”