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After an uproar, Trump’s team has disavowed its controversial climate questionnaire


The nation’s federal employees appear to have just won their first big clash with Donald Trump’s transition team. Or at least it looks that way.

Last week, Bloomberg unearthed a questionnaire that Trump’s team had sent to the Department of Energy to prepare for the change in government control. One of the questions was especially odd — Trump’s team wanted a list of every agency employee or contractor who had worked on certain climate issues during the Obama era:

Can you provide a list of all Department of Energy employees or contractors who have attended any lnteragency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon meetings? Can you provide a list of when those meetings were and any materials distributed at those meetings, EPSA emails associated with those meetings, or materials created by Department employees or contractors in anticipation of or as a result of those meetings?

Given the long-standing hostility toward climate science from Trump and his aides (see here for today’s example), this list-making made a lot of people inside and outside the Department of Energy very, very nervous. “Frankly, that scares me,” said Christine Todd Whitman, who ran the Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush, in an interview with Deutsche Welle. “There is no reason to have these lists. I can't imagine why you would use them.”

Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) warned Trump against retaliating against civil servants with whom he disagreed on policy: "That would be tantamount to an illegal modern-day political witch hunt, and would have a profoundly chilling impact on our dedicated federal workforce."

The Department of Energy, meanwhile, simply refused to comply with the request. "We will be forthcoming with all publicly available information with the transition team. We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team," DOE spokesperson Eben Burnham-Snyder told Politico. He added that the questions from Trump had "left many in our workforce unsettled."

Now, after a few days of outrage, it appears Trump’s transition team is disavowing the whole memo. "The questionnaire was not authorized or part of our standard protocol,” Trump spokesman Sean Spicer told Reuters Wednesday. “The person who sent it has been properly counseled.”

The clash between Trump’s appointees and civil servants could be a big story going forward

It’s unclear whether the DOE questionnaire was really just a mistake on one staffer’s part or whether the transition team backed down in the face of widespread media attention and furor.

Still, one of the big subplots to watch during the Trump era will be potential conflicts between Trump’s political appointees — who will sit in the White House and make up the top rungs of each agency — and the career civil servants who make up the bulk of the federal workforce and stick around from administration to administration.

In general, Trump’s political appointees will set the tone for each agency, and the career staff will follow suit. But there’s always potential for sharp disagreement around things like climate change — particularly since Trump’s Cabinet is getting filled with climate deniers, whereas the federal workforce contains a number of scientists who very much understand that global warming is real.

These clashes certainly broke out during the Bush era — in 2003, the New York Times broke a major story about how the White House tried to make changes to the EPA’s draft Report on the Environment, deleting references to climate change and adding mention of a discredited study by the American Petroleum Institute. EPA staffers were aghast, and eventually went to the press.

Further reading

Watch: A brief history of inaction on climate change

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