The questionnaire President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team sent to the Department of Energy arrived with little fanfare (neither Al Gore nor Kanye West were dispatched as couriers), but it was delivered with the expectation that word of its contents would filter down to employees at every level of the agency. Among other unusual inquiries, it included a request for the names of officials and contractors who helped the government forge a global deal to combat climate change and worked on related efforts to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
On Tuesday, the Department responded to Trump with a bold-lettered refusal: “We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team.”
The solace to dedicated civil servants will last for another 37 days. After that, it’s anyone’s guess how aggressively Trump’s administration will seek to dismiss or marginalize government employees and contractors who study and implement environmental policy. But even if a great purge isn’t upon us, a great chill almost certainly is. After all, the names the Trump transition didn’t receive are known to the people who would’ve been on the list. Even if they’re lucky enough to keep their jobs in the new year, or to not get saddled with political appointees looking over their shoulders, many will be less likely to confront the administration with hard truths about climate change or fearlessly pursue good science.
The effect has already seeped outside the federal government, into the broader community of climate scientists who may not collect salaries directly from the federal government but depend on the federal government for research funding and crucial data. These scientists, according to The Washington Post, “have begun a feverish attempt to copy reams of government data onto independent servers in hopes of safeguarding it from any political interference.”
This kind of defensive paranoia is the visible reflection of the invisible but extensive chilling effect the incoming administration is likely having across many realms of public service and life. It is happening already, weeks before he officially assumes the presidency. And the most frustrating part is that we’ll never know how far it ultimately reaches.
It is to be expected that a Republican president will appoint like-minded experts and operatives throughout the executive branch, and that civil servants will not always be thrilled about changes in the direction of federal policy. But what the Trump team attempted at the Department of Energy is much more insidious.
“[W]hat seems unusual,” Yale environmental historian Paul Sabin told the Post, “is singling people out for a very specific substantive issue, and treating their work on that substantive issue as, by default, contaminating or disqualifying.”
Trump hasn’t limited his intimidation to government employees who present obstacles to untrammeled power, either. His targets have included not-particularly-sympathetic institutions like Boeing and highly vulnerable individuals, like Chuck Jones, the president of the local steelworkers union that represents employees of Carrier.
Menacing phone calls followed after Trump attacked Jones on Twitter. So far none of Trump’s named enemies has been hurt, but the risk of harm is plain, as anyone who’s followed the Comet Pizza saga knows.
The less tangible threat, though, is to the willingness of dissidents to criticize the Trump government, out of fear that Trump will harm their businesses, or that his unhinged supporters will harm their families. How many people will see what happened to Jones and others and decide raising objections isn’t worth it?
Over the course of the campaign, Trump singled out one federal judge and multiple political journalists for abuse. Some of those journalists (along with many others whom Trump never targeted directly) were subsequently inundated with bigoted, violence-drenched messages from Trump supporters, both online and, more ominously, at their home addresses.
The harassment of journalists was a story during the campaign, just as the Department of Energy witch hunt is a story today. In the same vein, Trump’s promise to jail Hillary Clinton was heavily criticized, as was his more recent suggestion that flag-burners be imprisoned or stripped of citizenship. But even a comprehensive catalog of all the chilling things Trump and his henchmen do can’t stop the chill itself from penetrating bone-deep. The damage will be done, and it will be unquantifiable.
Just as we can’t know how many civil servants will self-censor, we can’t know what effect Trump’s press intimidation is having and will have on the kind of coverage he receives, or whether judges will treat him more leniently going forward out of fear of retribution. It’s not only that cowed people won’t admit to being cowed, but many of these targets may never even realize they’re inhibiting themselves in the interest of self-preservation. Whether the effect is subtle or obvious, it will come at a huge cost to the public interest. The full extent of it will be left to us to imagine.