One staffer publicly mocked senators who criticized Donald Trump as “clueless” and “crazy.” Another accused Hillary Clinton of having a campaign aide killed and employing pedophiles. A third wrote the “shameful” press was trying to deny Trump his victories.
These are not faceless trolls but midlevel political appointees at the Health and Human Services Department who have helped shape the agency’s communications strategy — even while taking a page out of President Donald Trump’s playbook.
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The behavior evokes Trump’s taunts and gibes, suggesting that some officials feel empowered to mimic the president even while representing the government to millions of taxpayers and working alongside career federal employees. It also raises questions about whether any officials are violating the Hatch Act, which is intended to ban most federal personnel from bringing politics into the workplace.
“Just saw where Crazy @BobCorker called the #TrumpTrain a ‘cult!,'” Gavin Smith, an HHS staffer who identifies himself as deputy communications director, publicly posted on Twitter this month, criticizing the Tennessee senator and frequent administration critic, who is retiring this year. “Let’s be clear sir, we’re not a cult — we’re a movement that defeated Crooked @HillaryClinton and that’s committed to ridding Washington of politicians like you. Good riddance — DC will be better off with you!”
Officials also have conveyed their views through more traditional channels. David Pasch, who ran HHS’ digital communications until this month, regularly parked his car — with “FAKENWS” vanity license plates — outside agency headquarters.
Veterans of past administrations say that midlevel political appointees can be critical of the press, a president’s rivals and even lawmakers in their own party — but they should keep their views private.
“These comments are pretty egregious stuff,” said a senior HHS official in the George W. Bush administration, who agreed to speak privately. “In the corporate world, you could just fire them. But this is politics, so it’s very, very different.”
“It was made clear to every individual that every utterance represented the administration,” said Kevin Griffis, who served as HHS assistant secretary of public affairs in the Obama administration. “You were expected to comport yourself with dignity. There was no separation between speaking on an online account and speaking to a reporter.”
A handful of Trump appointees’ postings have gotten media attention, forcing HHS to grapple with how to handle each situation.
Ximena Barreto, a deputy communications director who worked on the Trump campaign, was placed on administrative review after CNN revealed her history of spreading conspiracy theories, including that Hillary Clinton was engaged in a child-sex ring at a Washington pizza shop, was involved in the murder of aide Seth Rich and employed pedophiles in her campaign.
Barreto was ultimately reassigned to the agency’s Administration for Children & Families, where Mediate reported last week that she has been privately unapologetic, calling CNN’s report a “smear campaign.” Barreto did not respond to a request for comment.
Jon Cordova, the principal deputy assistant secretary for administration, was initially allowed back in his old role after a two-week administrative review of his social media posts that spread conspiracy theories about Sen. Ted Cruz, former President Barack Obama and others. For instance, Cordova in 2016 publicly shared posts that suggested with no evidence that Khizr Khan — the Gold Star father who spoke at the Democratic National Convention and criticized Trump — was a Muslim Brotherhood agent.
CNN also unearthed years of controversial remarks about race and religion — especially striking because Cordova was subsequently tapped to help oversee human resources at HHS. “The real racist are the democrats, Obama is half white, if his genes somehow made him look like Paul Ryan, same accomplishments – Would he be president? I think not,” Cordova wrote on Facebook in 2013.
Cordova was subsequently demoted to senior adviser after Secretary Alex Azar brought in new staff to run his office this spring. Cordova did not respond to a request for comment.
HHS still has an ad hoc approach for addressing controversial social media posts, according to three individuals with knowledge of the process. It involves reviewing whether the posts were made while the official was at the agency, if there are internal complaints about the official and if there are any extenuating political or logistical circumstances.
The sheer number of flagrant social media posts has also led to uncomfortable internal conversations. Back in April, Cordova — who had just returned from his own suspension for spreading conspiracy theories — had to help discipline Barreto for doing the same thing.
Agency officials declined to address questions about its process and the individuals mentioned in this story. The White House did not respond to request for comment.
But the issue is further complicated because the postings — many of which have not been publicly reported — invoke the style of Trump, and there’s sympathy for the views expressed within parts of HHS leadership and in the White House. Trump campaign veterans have worked to hire and shield these workers, many of whom worked on the president’s campaign, even as Azar has imported a new team since joining the agency in February.
Tim Clark, the agency’s White House liaison who also served as HHS’ interim communications chief this year, in 2016 sent tweets sharing allegations that Hillary Clinton’s campaign paid people to incite violence at Trump’s rallies, based on a hidden-camera video produced by Project Veritas’ James O’Keefe. Democrats disputed the charge and distanced themselves from the individuals in the edited video.
“Wikileaks & O’Keefe video shows Hillary blatantly disregards election laws,” Clark tweeted in October 2016, while he was California director for the Trump campaign. “Election must be free & fair.”
Clark also repeatedly used a #SpiritCooking hashtag to promote his pro-Trump tweets, referencing allegations about Clinton campaign chief John Podesta engaging in Satanic practices, based on an email forwarded to Podesta’s brother Tony and obtained by WikiLeaks. The term “spirit cooking” was used by artist Marina Abramović, who was hosting a dinner and invited the Podestas, and in November 2016 said the term was “taken completely out of my context … it was just a normal dinner.”
Clark’s Twitter account is now private. His assistant referred questions to the HHS press office.
Smith, the HHS communications staffer who worked on social media during the Trump campaign, has been especially prolific since joining the department last year, writing dozens of tweets that criticize Trump’s rivals — including those in the Republican party — and the press. The public-facing account, where Smith identifies himself as a former press lead for Trump and now uses the name “Gavin James,” has more than 7,300 followers.
“Well, we’ve always known he’s clueless,” Smith said, retweeting a quote about Sen. Lindsey Graham, and in another tweet telling the Republican senator to “delete your account.” Other Smith tweets mocked Mitt Romney as a “clown” and encouraged all living ex-presidents “to finally pipe down and get on board with the will of the #American people to #MAGA!”
“Getting your ass kicked once just wasn’t enough for you, was it @JohnKasich? Lookin’ forward to Round Two! #MAGA” Smith tweeted in response to reports that the Ohio governor was considering a 2020 presidential bid. Meanwhile, Smith has waded into politics in his home state of South Carolina, including sharing an article about him possibly challenging a sitting House representative and repeatedly weighing in on local issues.
“Perhaps the South Carolina legislature will finally listen to @TreasurerLoftis — or will they make yet another bad deal on behalf of the #SC taxpayers?” Smith wrote in December, referencing a failed energy project. “Make no mistake legislators, we are watching you. Each and every one of you.”
Smith’s pinned tweet, posted last Saturday and retweeted hundreds of times, features a photo of Smith behind a Trump-emblazoned podium and endorses South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster for reelection. A subsequent tweet offers a “disclaimer” that Smith’s initial post was in a “personal capacity” and not associated “with my position in the Trump administration.”
Government transparency experts said that some of Smith’s tweets could violate the Hatch Act’s prohibitions on executive branch employees engaging in partisan messages, pointing to February 2018 guidance released by the Office of Special Counsel.
“The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity, including posting on Twitter or Facebook, while on duty or in the federal workplace,” said Daniel Stevens of the Center for Accountability. “If James posted comments regarding McMaster while in a federal building or during his work hours, he likely violated the Hatch Act.”
Ken Gold, the former director of Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, noted that the content of Smith’s tweets could be acceptable, given free speech protections — so long as it’s not happening in the office. “If he’s doing it during the workday, it’s a violation of the Hatch Act,” Gold said.
Smith also has frequently criticized reporters, such as asking CNN’s Jim Acosta about his “fake news showboating,” calling NBC’s Chuck Todd “sleepy-eyes” and suggesting that Maggie Haberman of The New York Times was getting her “feelings hurt because those on the inside aren’t leaking to her.” Smith has publicly mocked more than 22 separate journalists or outlets since joining the HHS communications department. Smith’s email account has an out-of-office message, steering questions toward the HHS press office.
Pasch, who served as digital communications czar before leaving HHS this month, was more circumspect with his personal Twitter account — although his Facebook profile photo also touts an image of him with the message “fake news.”
He had control over HHS’ digital platforms as the agency used its official social media accounts to regularly criticize the Affordable Care Act. That strategy came under fire from advocates who say that politics undercut HHS’ mission to improve access to coverage.
Before joining HHS, Pasch worked for Generation Opportunity, a Koch brothers-aligned advocacy group for which he crafted digital campaigns — like a viral “Creepy Uncle Sam” ad — that encouraged young Americans not to sign up for the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces. Pasch did not reply to questions sent to his email account.