New Trump Agency Memo Gags Staff Communications, Democrats Say

PHOTO: A memo circulating in the Department of Health and Human Services from the acting secretary restricts some communication by federal employees with public officials.PlayABC News
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The Trump administration is circulating a memo ordering federal employees not to communicate with Congress, a demand that Democrats are calling an illegal gag order.

“The Trump administration has issued restrictions at multiple agencies on employee communications, including, in some instances, communications with Congress,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., wrote in a letter Wednesday to new White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II. “These directives appear to violate a host of federal laws.”

Cummings’ letter cited a memo -- dated Jan. 20 -- circulating at the Department of Health and Human Services from Acting Secretary Norris Cochran that tells agency division heads that “no correspondence to public officials (e.g., members of Congress, governors) ... unless specifically authorized by me or my designee, shall be sent between now and Feb. 3.”

Within the last two days, Cochran, in a follow-up message to staff that was provided to ABC News by an agency spokesperson, sought to “clarify” his earlier memo, telling employees the “memorandum should not be interpreted or implemented in any way that would preclude or in any way interfere with our HHS staff addressing their concerns to their elected representatives in person or in writing.”

He said that the language in his memo was simply intended “to coordinate the Department’s policy positions with the appropriate policy staff on agency business.”

Staffers at the Environmental Protection Agency earlier in the week told The Los Angeles Times that their new bosses ordered a media blackout, quoting one directive as telling them, “Only send out critical messages, as messages can be shared broadly and end up in the press.”

Cummings accused the administration of imposing a widespread ban on agency communication.

White House aides did not immediately respond to request for comment about alleged efforts to block employees from communicating with Congress, broadly, or about the latest in a series of letters from Cummings about the way they are handling the transition. The Associated Press reported that White House press secretary Sean Spicer said no directives to silence communication from agencies came from the White House.

A call and an email to HHS requesting comment was not immediately returned.

Cummings, the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, refers to a memo circulating in the federal health agency that appears aimed at halting any effort to finish work on regulations that began during the prior administration. It is in that context that the acting agency head prohibited employees from talking with Congress.

Cummings and co-signer Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., cite a series of laws meant to protect open communication between federal employees and members of Congress, including one that ties agency funding to the free flow of information.

That provision, Cummings wrote, specifically prohibits agencies from issuing any order that “threatens to prohibit or prevent any other officer or employee of the federal government from having any direct oral or written communication or contact with any member, committee or subcommittee of the Congress in connection with any matter.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include additional information.