Andrew Wheeler, nominated by President Donald Trump on January 9 to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is increasingly following the aggressive media playbook of his predecessor, Scott Pruitt.
Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, assumed the role of acting EPA administrator in July, after Pruitt got himself booted. He has continued Pruitt's work of rolling back major environmental regulations, a fact that has been well-reported. Less well-known is that Wheeler has also been following in Pruitt's footsteps in dealing with the press.
Wheeler's EPA press team attacks journalists and media outlets
The scandal-prone Pruitt had an extremely contentious relationship with the media. His press office retaliated against specific reporters whose stories it didn't like and even attacked them by name in press releases, among other antagonistic moves.
When Wheeler took the helm, many reporters looked forward to a change in approach. E&E News published a story about the differences between the two EPA leaders in July under the headline "'Night and day' as Wheeler opens doors to press."
But in the last few months, the EPA press office has returned to some of the same combative tactics used during the Pruitt era. An October 30 press release was headlined, “EPA Sets the Record Straight After Being Misrepresented in Press.” Two days later, it got more aggressive with a press release titled “Fact Checking Seven Falsehoods in CNN’s Report.” From an E&E News article published in mid-November:
The [EPA press shop's] combative approach calmed a bit when acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler took over for Scott Pruitt, who resigned over the summer, but now it appears to be intensifying again.
The agency's actions have been scrutinized in the press in recent weeks, and the public affairs shop has been hitting back.
Bobby Magill, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, said the agency seems to be returning to its war-room-style tactics under Pruitt.
“It looks to me like they're sort of returning to form,” Magill said. “This suggests that they are returning to their previous press strategy under Scott Pruitt.”
Wheeler may start feeling even more antagonistic toward the press in the coming months. On December 26, a federal judge ordered the EPA to release roughly 20,000 emails exchanged between industry groups and high-level political appointees at the agency, including Wheeler, after the Sierra Club sued to gain access to the records under the Freedom of Information Act. Similar records requests from the Sierra Club during Pruitt's tenure helped lead to his forced resignation; the group made the emails available to reporters, which led to the publication of many embarrassing articles about Pruitt.
Wheeler favors right-wing media for his televised interviews
Wheeler exhibits similar preferences. All four of the TV interviews we've seen him give since becoming acting administrator at the EPA have been with right-wing outlets.
The first went to the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group. Boris Epshteyn, Sinclair's chief political analyst and a former Trump aide, asked no hard questions and gave Wheeler a platform to make specious claims about automobile fuel economy. Wheeler's second TV interview was with Fox News, the third was with the Fox Business Network, and the fourth went to a Sinclair national correspondent, and those interviewers all went easy on him too.
Wheeler is getting cozy with the right-wing Daily Caller
Pruitt and his press office had a remarkably friendly relationship with The Daily Caller, a far-right online publication started by Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, funded by Charles Koch, and sustained through sketchy tax dealings. During Pruitt's tenure, the EPA press office issued a policy statement by sending out a press release that pointed to an interview Pruitt gave to The Daily Caller, while the right-wing outlet frequently defended Pruitt against accusations of wrongdoing, sometimes with "scoops" and "exclusives" based on information that appeared to have been leaked to the outlet by EPA sources.
Late last year, Wheeler revealed his own affinity for The Daily Caller. After he was criticized for spreading a false attack on the National Climate Assessment, a major government report on climate change, the EPA issued a press release that tried to defend Wheeler by directly citing a Daily Caller article. For its part, The Daily Caller regularly publishes articles defending Wheeler and the actions of his EPA.
Wheeler embraces right-wing outlets and slams mainstream media via his Twitter account
Like his predecessor, Wheeler has a fondness for right-wing media outlets and personalities, but he has exhibited that preference in a way that Pruitt never did -- via his personal Twitter account. Or at least he did until a few weeks ago, when Wheeler protected his account to hide his tweets from the public. (Wheeler still has a publicly viewable official Twitter account.) But journalists and activists had made note of many of the controversial tweets from his personal account before he deleted individual ones and then made the whole account private.
The Daily Beast reported last year on one troubling tweet:
In August 2016, Wheeler publicly defended alt-right troll Milo Yiannopolous after the latter was banned from Twitter for encouraging users to harass actress Leslie Jones. In a now-deleted tweet, the lobbyist linked to a six-minute video, “The Truth About Milo,” produced by InfoWars editor-at-large and noted conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, in which Watson posited that conservatives might be “banned from using the internet altogether if they trigger your butthurt.”
Wheeler has amplified at least two tweets from Fox News' Brit Hume that bashed major newspapers. In December, Wheeler “liked” a Hume tweet that linked to a Wall Street Journal editorial criticizing The Washington Post for alleged anti-Trump bias. In October, he retweeted another Hume tweet that criticized The New York Times and linked to an article in the conservative National Review.
Wheeler has also “liked” a number of tweets from other right-wing figures who criticized mainstream media outlets, including:
- a Donald Trump Jr. tweet linking to The Daily Caller and mocking CNN
- a tweet from frequent Fox guest and former NRATV host Dan Bongino that slammed MSNBC
- a tweet from libertarian talk show host Dave Rubin that bashed HuffPost
Wheeler promotes climate denial and racist memes via his Twitter account
Like Pruitt, Wheeler also casts doubt on well-established climate science -- another view he has expressed through his Twitter account.
In a 2015 tweet, Wheeler praised a RealClearPolitics essay that argued, "There is no such thing as 'carbon pollution.'” The essay criticized mainstream media outlets and scientific journals that have reported on climate change:
Of course, we don’t have good data or sound arguments for decarbonizing our energy supply. But it sounds like we do. If you read Scientific American, Science, Nature, National Geographic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, or any of thousands of newspapers and magazines, and you take them at face value, you would have to agree that there is a strong likelihood that serious climate change is real and that decarbonization or geo-engineering are our only hopes. ... These are the people promoting a myth that has become deeply ingrained in our society.
In 2011, Wheeler tweeted a link to a post on the climate-denial blog JunkScience.com. The post, written by the site's founder and longtime climate denier Steve Milloy, argued that information from the American Lung Association should not be trusted because the organization “is bought-and-paid-for by the EPA.” Wheeler also retweeted a Milloy tweet from 2015 that took a shot at HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington. And in 2009, Wheeler sent two tweets linking to climate-denying blog posts.
[Wheeler] repeatedly engaged with incendiary, partisan content on his personal Facebook and Twitter accounts over the past five years. The online activity included liking a racist image of former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama on Facebook and retweeting an infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy theorist.
Wheeler is turning back to major mainstream newspapers as he faces confirmation hearing
Though Wheeler has shown a preference for right-wing media in TV interviews and on Twitter, he has also given a number of interviews to mainstream newspapers, wire services, and D.C. publications. In July, after it was announced that he would serve as acting EPA administrator, Wheeler gave interviews to The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, and The New York Times.
The pace of his interviews with print outlets slowed down after his first month in office, but then ramped back up in November around the time that Trump announced his intention to nominate Wheeler to permanently fill the top EPA spot. On November 16, Wheeler gave another interview to The New York Times, and then two weeks later sat for a live-streamed interview with The Washington Post. In December, he gave another interview to The Wall Street Journal and then one to The Hill.
Granting interviews to major newspapers seems to be part of Wheeler's strategy to paint himself with a gloss of mainstream respectability before his Senate confirmation hearing, which is scheduled for January 16. Meanwhile, some of his more partisan views are now out of sight in that locked Twitter account, including insults lobbed at those very same newspapers.