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FOIA: NPS Director Suggested Trump Administration 'Manage the Talking Point' of Climate Scientist's Meeting with Mark Zuckerberg

Sarah Emerson

Sarah Emerson

Internal government emails reveal new details about Mark Zuckerberg’s canceled meeting with a US Geological Survey climate scientist.

Image: Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg

The Trump administration was recently criticized for canceling a meeting between federal climate scientist Dan Fagre and Mark Zuckerberg at Glacier National Park. The Facebook CEO wished to discuss global warming's effect on glaciers with Fagre. Only, at the very last minute, the scientist was prevented from attending.

Friday, Motherboard published internal emails between Interior Department (DOI) staff, in which they discussed Fagre's dismissal. These documents were provided to us by the US Geological Survey (USGS) through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Saturday, Motherboard received additional documents from the National Park Service (NPS) in response to an identical FOIA request we submitted in June.

The more than 300 pages of emails confirm that Trump administration appointees took issue with Fagre's involvement in the event. The emails also show that NPS staff were left scrambling to explain Fagre's exclusion to Facebook, which repeatedly requested a government scientist capable of speaking about the effects of climate change on melting glaciers at the park. The emails also show that, prior to Fagre's exclusion, NPS Acting Director Michael Reynolds suggested that the administration could try to "manage the talking point" of government scientists during the meeting.

"Unfortunately, [Glacier National Park Superintendent] Jeff Mow and Dan Fagre can no longer participate. Our deputy superintendent will be filling in for Jeff… We have other folks along on the ride who can very accurately and compellingly speak to some of the natural resource challenges the park faces," Lauren Alley, a management assistant at Glacier National Park, wrote to Facebook Communications Director Derick Mains on July 12, three days before the planned event.

"This is really disappointing. Since I told Mark that the Superintendent was hosting can you share more details on why he can't attend? Also who will be able to talk to him about the research that has been causing the Glaciers to melt," Mains responded, seemingly unsettled by the abrupt change of plans.

Screenshot from NPS FOIA documents.

Like Fagre, Mains also appeared confused about the unforeseen developments. Fagre confirmed to Motherboard in an email on Friday that he still doesn't know why he was uninvited.

I reached out to Mains and asked what the agency told him about Fagre, but did not receive a response.

It's been difficult to plot a timeline of events leading up to Fagre's dismissal. All of the agencies involved have largely refused to comment. In a statement to the Washington Post, DOI Press Secretary Heather Swift—an appointee under President Trump—claimed it was a matter of managing government resources.

Nothing in the emails provided to Motherboard by USGS and NPS suggests Fagre's participation in particular was a drain on government resources, and some of the emails show Facebook picking up significant costs associated with the trip. Fagre himself seemed open to the opportunity to highlight his climate research.

In fact, these new emails offer more insight into who squashed the meeting, how it was messaged, and the timeline of events.

The emails show that lower-level NPS, USGS, and DOI staff—many of whom have worked at these agencies under multiple Presidents—were gung-ho about Zuckerberg's visit and Fagre's involvement. These lower-level employees were left trying to explain Fagre's exclusion to each other and to Facebook after being seemingly ordered to exclude him by Trump administration appointees.

On July 3, staff close to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke were informed about Fagre's participation. We know this because a memorandum about Zuckerberg's visit was sent to Zinke's office in an "IMRO weekly report," which is used "to alert the offices of the Secretary of Interior and Assistant Secretary of Interior of any timely, major upcoming events and issues."

Screenshot from NPS FOIA documents.

These new documents make no reference to why, exactly, Fagre was uninvited. However, they do show the Trump-appointed Swift setting up phone calls (which are not subject to FOIA) with lower-level staff. Follow-up emails confirm that Swift had problems with Fagre's involvement.

Swift asked USGS Press Officer Anne-Berry Wade to call her about Zuckerberg's tentative itinerary on July 11 "about USGS in Glacier." Fagre was the only member of USGS who was expected to attend the meeting with Zuckerberg. That email was eventually forwarded up the chain to Bob Vogel, Acting Deputy Director of Operations at NPS. It's unclear what Swift wanted to discuss.

"Sir, a little bit of swirl is taking place around here (NPS and USGS) regarding Glacier's visitor on Saturday," NPS Chief of Public Affairs Tom Crosson, who was forwarded the exchange, wrote to Vogel.

Screenshot from NPS FOIA documents.

Many high-level DOI staff assumed that Fagre would be joining Zuckerberg's group, as late as the week of the event. Multiple internal schedules and news alerts were sent by public affairs staff referencing Fagre's involvement.

That appeared to change after Wade's call with Swift. An email from Crosson to Wade suggests that Wade called him after she talked to Swift.

"Got the message....kinda. Didn't get the level of your detail that you left on your VM [voicemail]. But I heard other things too. We can compare notes soon. I'm dealing with my own little crisis right now," Crosson wrote to Wade.

On July 12, three days before Zuckerberg's visit, Swift informed Glacier National Park that Fagre would not be attending:

"Just to be clear USGS will be standing down from the event as well as this is not an official event."

Screenshot of NPS FOIA documents.

Emails reveal that the highest levels of the NPS had been fretting about Fagre's participation for nearly a week.

NPS Acting Director Michael Reynolds wrote to DOI Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Virginia Johnson—who was hired under Trump—that the best course of action might be to "manage the talking points" of those involved in the meeting. (Reynolds was personally excoriated by Trump in January after the agency's Twitter account retweeted a comparison between Trump and Obama's inauguration crowd size.)

"We have called the park and the region to discuss. I'm not sure exactly next steps other than manage the talking points," Reynolds wrote to Johnson on July 6 in response to an email that specifically mentioned Fagre's involvement.

A spokesperson for NPS declined to comment on the matter.

Screenshot from NPS FOIA documents.

Until now, we knew that DOI officials discouraged the attendance of just two individuals: Fagre, and Mow.

However, these documents show that Swift and Johnson opposed nearly everyone's attendance. In emails between both women and NPS Public Affairs Officer Jeremy Barnum, it's implied that only Deputy Superintendent Eric Smith was supposed to be there.

"Thanks, Jeremy. It was my understand that only the Deputy Superintendent is to participate," Swift wrote to Barnum. "This seems like a lot of government resources to dedicate to a celebrity's personal PR tour."

"I agree with Heather and am copying Bob [Vogel] as this is not consistent with the feedback we received earlier in the week," Johnson replied.

Screenshot from NPS FOIA documents.

In the end, Mark Zuckerberg did visit Glacier National Park, but it doesn't appear that any government employees with climate change expertise attended. A follow-up email sent from Glacier's Lauren Alley to Facebook's Mains suggests that Zuckerberg or someone else asked about temperature rise during the visit; no one was able to answer offhand.

Screenshot from NPS FOIA documents.

"This is a follow up to our conversation today about average temperature change," Alley wrote in an email to Mains. "Between 1900 and 2006, Western mt had 1.33 degree Celsius rise in annual temps. Above 6000 ft experienced two to three times the global average increase."

"Thanks Lauren for this and everything else in setting up what turned out to be a great visit," Mains responded. "Sorry about the challenges it caused on your side."

If you have any information about the events surrounding Dan Fagre's meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, you can email Sarah.Emerson@Vice.com, or send a secure tip through VICE's SecureDrop.