A series of tweets President Trump sent in November promising to halt imports of elephant trophies blindsided staffers in his own administration and cut off months of planning to ease the import process, newly released emails show.
Trump’s tweet to put “on hold” the highly controversial imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia, a day after it was announced that African elephant trophies would be allowed into the U.S for the first time since 2014, led to widespread public backlash from lawmakers in both parties, animal rights groups and conservative figures such as Fox News host Laura Ingraham.
But it also caused a frantic panic among key staff members closely involved in drafting the rule changes.
Emails from officials in the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and its parent agency, the Interior Department, show that they had been planning to lift the ban on bringing tusks and other parts of elephants killed in hunts into the country for months, and did not expect the backlash from the public, let alone the president.
The turmoil among public affairs staffers in FWS and Interior started a half hour after Trump’s initial tweet the evening of Nov. 17, emails obtained by The Hill under the Freedom of Information Act show.
Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts. Under study for years. Will update soon with Secretary Zinke. Thank you!
Paul Ross, a public affairs specialist at Interior, notified his colleagues of the tweet, saying, “Just making sure you saw this.”
Within minutes, Gavin Shire, the head spokesman at FWS, asked the group if he should take down a website posting from earlier that evening saying that the ban was lifted.
By the next morning, a Saturday, the situation wasn’t any clearer for Interior staff. Heather Swift, press secretary at Interior, warned employees not to “engage” with the issue on social media, while an exasperated Shire declared, “I can’t keep up with these people!”
Greg Sheehan, FWS’s principal deputy director and its top official, seemed to be almost as much out-of-the-loop as the other staffers.
“Until we get additional clarification on the intent and breadth of the President’s decision to review ‘Big game Trophy decision’ we have been asked to abstain from issuing any permits for both Lions and Elephants,” he told top staff the day after Trump’s tweet.
The following day, Trump sent another tweet in the evening. “Big-game trophy decision will be announced next week but will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal,” he said.
Big-game trophy decision will be announced next week but will be very hard pressed to change my mind that this horror show in any way helps conservation of Elephants or any other animal.
The new public decree against FWS’s rule change from the boss didn’t help alleviate confusion among the public affairs staff.
“What does this mean?!!” Barbara Wainman, a senior external affairs aide, asked the group to no answer.
By the time Trump cut off imports, the agency had already given the green light for three elephant trophies from Zambia, Craig Hoover, head of the FWS’s international affairs team, told Sheehan.
While the public and media struggled to determine how much weight Trump’s decree carried on the elephant trophy decision, so too did his staff.
For weeks, employees grappled with what next was expected of them, and what they should do about the reversal of the ban — which by that point had been formally submitted to the Federal Register.
Shire at one point drafted a media response that appeared to officially walk back the proposal, blaming the change on the political unrest in Zimbabwe.
“Following the civil unrest there and the resignation today of President Mugabe, we have revised our determination on the importation of hunted elephant and lion trophies from Zimbabwe,” the memo read in part.
The memo never saw the light of day. Instead the administration absconded from making any formal statements, pointing instead to Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tweet as a formal response.
An Interior Spokesperson said the agency does not comment on tweets.
Shire, spokesperson for FWS, said it is routine for the department to draft public statements that are not ultimately used. He would not comment on the level of communication between the White House and the department during the period.
Finally, in March, FWS said it would review all applications to import animal trophies on a “case by case” basis and repeal all of its previous findings that trophy imports from particular countries would “enhance” conservation.
Paul Todd, a senior attorney in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s nature program, said it comes as little shock to see how disorganized the process over elephant trophies was.
“It seems to be the commonplace case that a Trump tweet will catch whatever part of our government completely off-guard,” said Todd, whose group opposes elephant trophy hunting. “And in this case, it was contradictory to where the FWS was wanting to head, in large part because they were doing the bidding of the trophy hunting industry.”
The emails also shed light on the at times close relationship and easy access leaders of hunting groups had with top FWS staff and how they worked to influence policy.
Nearly two weeks before the elephant trophy controversy, John Jackson, president of pro-trophy hunting group Conservation Force, sent an email to Sheehan and Zinke with a copy of a petition his group had formally sent to FWS asking for them to amend Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations for elephants and lions.
The 4(d) rules are the legal basis by which hunters can obtain permits to import animal parts to the U.S. The permits are meant to prove that killing an animal abroad provides conservation benefits.
Earlier in the year, Interior had requested public comments on potential regulatory changes. Jackson’s group’s petition was the only one out of hundreds that requested changes to the 4(d) rule for African elephants and lions.
Sheehan forwarded the email to Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, who was running the regulatory reform effort at the agency, writing “FYI.”
Four days after Jackson sent Sheehan that email, internal records show FWS employees began discussing plans to formally propose three regulations in early 2018 — two of the rules were to revise the Obama-era 4(d) rules for elephants and lions.
The early November email was not the last time Jackson, a member of Zinke’s International Wildlife Conservation Council, reached out personally to Sheehan.
Following Trump’s intervention of the trophy ban reversal he offered Sheehan — a former member of the pro-trophy hunting Safari Club International — “talking points” backing the argument for allowing trophy imports.
Those same talking points were forwarded to Sheehan in another email from the president of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, Jeff Crane.
“A little long-winded from Jackson, but still has a lot of good info. Good luck!” Crane wrote Sheehan.
Shire said of the department’s communications with Jackson: “We maintain relationships with numerous stakeholders representing a variety of interests and viewpoints. We welcome input and contributions from all of them.” He would not comment on Jackson’s communications with Sheehan.
Jackson said he was unaware that FWS was planning a rule change and did not know it had progressed so far but said he hopes the plans for the rule change continue.
On his communications with Sheehan, Jackson said it was routine for him to copy the acting administrators when submitting a petition and that he did not recall meeting him in person before he lead FWS.
Jackson added of Sheehan: “We have mutual respect for each other as professional conservationists and a developing relationship but not more.”
Tanya Sanerib, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said exchanges like that show an unusually close allegiance between the trophy hunting community and its regulators.
“As you look through these documents you see these clear connections between trophy hunting organizations and in particular Sheehan,” she said. “The level of access that trophy hunting organizations have is not common.”
Neither of the 4(d) changes were submitted to the Federal Register on the dates they were scheduled in the emails. Shire said that after career staff began an initial review of the rules they determined changes were not appropriate at that time. He did not comment on whether they may be introduced in the future.
This story has been updated with statements.