Here's How The National Park Service's Twitter Account Got Locked Down After Criticizing Trump

"The new leadership is not jazzed.”

Originally posted on
Updated on

The incoming Trump administration was "not jazzed" when the National Park Service retweeted information critical of 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 Jan. 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.

A draft NPS briefing statement said it's unclear how those tweets were retweeted. The briefing statement said the agency suspected its Twitter account may have been "compromised," possibly by a former NPS employee.

"Using Twitter's account dashboard, which includes a list of IPs and OS used for recent account access, we traced the IP address used for the two questionable posts to an ISP in the San Bruno, CA, area and checked all possible NPS social media ponts [sic] of contacts in that area. None indicated that they had been active on NPS Twitter accounts on January 20."

The briefing paper also notes that multiple people have access to "@natlparkservice account credentials." Those individuals were ordered to change their Twitter and Facebook passwords.

The National Park Service has since determined the circumstances under which the tweets were sent, but declined to share those details with BuzzFeed News.

"I’m not going to be able to discuss it," NPS public affairs chief Thomas Crosson said. The person who retweeted the tweets is an NPS employee and has not been fired, Crosson said.

The emails revealing what unfolded at NPS on Inauguration Day are contained in 1,300 pages of internal communications the NPS and Interior 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. (Read all the emails here and here.)

Still, 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 the NPS from tweeting.

In an email sent shortly after 5 p.m. on Jan. 20 to the NPS and Department of the Interior officials — the department oversees the NPS — Larry Gillick, the department'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 the Interior offices and agencies under its purview not to tweet throughout the inauguration weekend until new guidance was 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 that any scheduled tweets are no longer scheduled."

“TLDR: I’m not tweeting, we’re not tweeting and none of our people are tweeting. Discussion will continue next week,” Gillick added.

Another email, however, suggests that the Trump administration never intended the NPS's Twitter account to be locked down.

"Apparently a huge miscom [miscommunication] going on. They (new team) never intended for a full Twitter shutdown," wrote Crosson, NPS's public affairs chief, in a Jan. 21 email sent to April Slayton, the agency's assistant communications director.

“TLDR: I’m not tweeting, we’re not tweeting and none of our people are tweeting. Discussion will continue next week.”

Once the Twitter "stand down" 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, the NPS was bombarded with media inquiries. The agency tried to quickly gain control of a runaway news story and an official offered to assist White House press secretary Sean Spicer with any "corrective messaging."

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 called acting NPS Director Michael Reynolds and demanded photographs from the agency to support his statements about the record crowd size.

“Tami – I have a wh [White House] emergency regarding pictures,” Reynolds wrote in an email to Tami Heilemann, a photographer at the Department of the Interior. Reynolds also directed the head of NPS communications to assist.

“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 Jan. 21.

That day, Spicer held his first news conference. Behind him were two Trump inauguration photographs he received from the NPS that he said prove that the swearing-in was the most viewed in history and challenged the media to prove him wrong. Two weeks ago, the NPS released hundreds of 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 Jan. 20 partially redacted email, said that the retweets were not helpful and “spreads possible misinformation.”

Another email from Matulka shows that she reached out directly to Twitter to report a "problem" with the NPS's Twitter account. The email doesn't say what the problem was but shows Matulka spoke on the phone with a "Bridget" at Twitter about the issue.

The emails make clear that some Interior and NPS employees were angered by the directive to refrain from tweeting and they noted that the use of Twitter is how information about emergencies — such as inclement weather and natural disasters — is 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,” an Interior Department spokesman wrote in one email, 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.”

Asked about the disclosures that the White House ordered the ban, Spicer told BuzzFeed News, "I believe they had violated their standing social media protocols and practices."

In subsequent emails, staffers clarified that accounts that relayed public safety information, like USGSVolcanoes and USGSBigQuakes, were exempt from this freeze. And eventually, after news reports and tweets cheered on the 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 Jan. 21 email to Crosson, the 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:

UPDATE

This story was updated to include comments from Tom Crosson.


Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in LA. Recipient: IRE 2016 FOI award; Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame. PGP fingerprint 46DB 0712 284B 8C6E 40FF 7A1B D3CD 5720 694B 16F0.

Contact Jason Leopold at jason.leopold+old@buzzfeed.com.

Nidhi Subbaraman is a Science Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Nidhi Subbaraman at nidhi.subbaraman@buzzfeed.com.

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