The incoming Trump administration was “not jazzed” when the National Park Service retweeted information critical about the president during his inauguration, according to internal emails obtained by BuzzFeed News, and initially ordered the agency to not tweet that entire weekend.
On January 20, the day Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, the National Park Service (NPS) retweeted images showing Trump's smaller crowd size compared with Barack Obama's inauguration audience. Another retweet noted the absence of policy areas on the new White House website.
The retweets turned NPS into internet folk heroes and resulted in tens of thousands of new followers. A flurry of news stories attributed the lockdown to the new Trump administration and reported that the White House banned NPS from tweeting.
In an email sent on the afternoon of January 20th to NPS and Department of Interior officials — the Interior Department oversees the NPS — Larry Gillick, the agency’s deputy director of digital strategy, informed his colleagues that he had just met the new White House communications director.
“Things went well,” Gillick said. “And then someone inadvertently tweeted an unwise and unflattering RT [retweet] about the administration to the public. No doubt this was done in error. That said, the new leadership is not jazzed.”
Gillick then told his colleagues that the Trump administration ordered all Department of Interior offices and agencies under its purview not to tweet throughout the inauguration weekend until new guidance is issued the following Monday.
“The new administration says that the Department and all Bureaus will not tweet this weekend and must wait for guidance before returning to Twitter. Such guidance is not expected until Monday at the earliest,” Gillick wrote. “Please make sure to that any scheduled tweets are no longer scheduled.”
The email is contained in hundreds of pages of internal emails NPS released to BuzzFeed News and Ryan Shapiro, a doctoral candidate at MIT and research affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, tell a slightly different story about what happened behind the scenes. (Read all the emails here.)
“TLDR: I’m not tweeting, we’re not tweeting and none of our people are tweeting. Discussion will continue next week,” Gillick added.
“TLDR: I’m not tweeting, we’re not tweeting and none of our people are tweeting. Discussion will continue next week.”
Once that directive was widely distributed internally to Interior and NPS staff, details about it were leaked to the media and it was characterized by NPS employees as a “ban” by a hostile Trump administration. Once the news broke, NPS was bombarded with media inquiries. The agency tried to quickly gain control of a runaway news story.
The emails and a few text messages included in the cache laid bare the “emergency” situation that erupted after it was disclosed that Trump personally requested photographs from NPS about the crowd size.
“Tami – I have a wh [White House] emergency regarding pictures,” wrote Michael Reynolds, the agency’s deputy director of operations in an email to Tami Heilemann, a photographer at the Department of Interior.
“Tami, we are to send to Sean Spicer at White House direct. They want your info etc. but I will find out about what more they need. He Spicer might want to talk to you…” Reynolds wrote on the morning of January 21.
That day, Spicer held his first news conference. Behind him were two Trump inauguration photographs which he said prove that the swearing in was the most viewed in history and challenged the media to prove him wrong. Two weeks ago, NPS released official inauguration photographs to BuzzFeed News that did just that.
Meanwhile, NPS employees set up a Facebook group and noted that the offending retweets were “fact based” and not partisan. Rebecca Matulka, the deputy director of digital at the Interior Department, in a January 20, partially redacted email, said that the retweets were not helpful and “spreads possible misinformation.”
The emails make clear that some Interior and NPS employees were angered by the directive to refrain from tweeting and they noted that Twitter is how information about emergencies — such as inclement weather and natural disasters — are communicated to the public in various states. Other employees were upset that it was characterized by their colleagues as a conspiracy to silence them.
“FYI, this directive yesterday caused some concern in our offices around the country,” said one email an Interior Department spokesman wrote, quoting another colleague’s email. “The perception was that this was a government-wide halt ordered by the administration, rather than Interior-specific direction as a result of specific problematic ac ions fueling concern that there was some scheme afoot to silence federal bureaus in their social media activities. A little more information would have gone a long way to calming those fears and stopping the wild assumptions.”
After news reports and tweets cheered on NPS, the temporary ban was lifted and new guidance was issued.
But NPS and Interior staff were unsure what to tweet about.
“Please get a tweet up. Any idea on what topic – it’ll get a lot of scrutiny no doubt?” wrote Megan Bloomgren, who was newly tapped by the Trump administration to work at the Interior Department, in a January 21 email to Thomas Crosson, NPS’s public affairs chief.
“Will be something safe,” Crosson said.
It was an image of a bison and an apology.
This is a developing story. Check back for updates and follow BuzzFeed News on Twitter.
Read the emails here: