Emails obtained by American Oversight show that an official at the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), Alex Herrgott, pushed Senate staffers in 2018 to ask their bosses to voice support for the administration’s infrastructure plans on Twitter and during a congressional hearing, going so far as to feed them lines. Of course, despite Herrgott’s suggested hashtags and best efforts, President Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan never made it out of Congress.
During his presidential campaign, then-candidate Donald Trump used rebuilding America’s infrastructure as a central campaign promise. But the president provided few details about how his administration would fund billions of dollars’ worth of repairs to roads, bridges, rails, airports, and waterways across the country. But even with this uncertainty, Herrgott, who was CEQ associate director for infrastructure until September 2018, seemed undeterred.
In March 2018, Secretaries Alexander Acosta, Elaine Chao, Sonny Perdue, Rick Perry, and Wilbur Ross testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. That morning, Herrgott forwarded planned questions from Democratic senators on the committee to officials at the Departments of Labor, Transportation, Agriculture, Energy, and Commerce. “We were tipped off on Dem questions this morning—these are critical but we can knock these out of the park. There is a special focus on rural formula,” Herrgott told agency officials.
Herrgott also reached out to congressional staffers with a suggestion on how to prepare for the hearing. Minutes after getting in touch with agency officials, Herrgott emailed staffers for his former boss, Senator Jim Inhofe: “FYI guys—any interest in asking for the big chart for Inhofe to use as prop. You can ask Adrian for it. It will look great behind him.”
Inhofe’s staff took Herrgott up on his suggestion. “We should use the big chart in relation to our question to Perry about the approval process for pipelines. Will you tee that up and see if the boss wants to do it when it is the appropriate time to do so?” wrote Inhofe’s chief of staff.
Once the hearing was under way, Herrgott again reached out to Inhofe’s staff, this time with a request. Herrgott wanted Inhofe to counter a “Dem question” of the sort he’d previously forwarded. During the hearing, Senator Gary Peters said, “Until this administration comes forward with an actual concrete plan as to how we pay for it, let’s be honest with the American people, this is just smoke and mirrors right now.”
Herrgott emailed staffers: “Any chance inhofe can say. Peters said our plan is smoke and mirrors. Can inhofe say ‘We need to remember that All federal dollars start out as state and local dollars. Empowering state and locals for the roads and bridges they own is the hallmark of the plan—we don’t need to bring new dollars back to dc just so we can give them to states with new federal strings’. ‘Keep in mind—administration supports long term solvency of HTF which is the bread butter—the presidents plan is above all traditional funding.’”
Herrgott then emailed at least three more senators, asking them to deliver the exact same line. First, he forwarded his request to a staffer for Senator Shelley Moore Capito. “Any chance senator Capito could say something to this effect?”
Just before noon, Herrgott emailed one of Cory Gardner’s staffers to request that Gardner respond to Peters’ comment. “Asking him now,” Gardner’s staffer said. In response, Herrgott said, “Yah. Tell him we really need this one.”
After reaching out to Gardner’s staff, Herrgott asked if Dan Sullivan could also defend the administration’s plan: “Hey Scott. Can Sullivan pitch in?” Ten minutes later, Herrgott forwarded that email to a second Sullivan staffer, saying, “Need a pitch hit from Sullivan.”
Based on the emails, it appears that Gardner didn’t take Herrgott up on his request. “He doesn’t think he’ll have enough time. He has several trade related questions he wants to ask,” Gardner’s staffer wrote to Herrgott.
Capito, however, did attempt to deliver Herrgott’s message, according to a staffer—who also asked Herrgott to check on a requested visit from Secretary Chao: “She tried to respond to the Ds argument by pointing out our state’s willingness to step forward with more of our own resources. But we had to spend the bulk of her time with Sec. Perry on the NGL hub. Op-ed should come soon. When you get a chance, please let me know how things are looking on the request for a visit from Sec. Chao.”
After the hearing ended, Herrgott sent a thank-you note to committee staffers. “Gang, on a personal note, thank you for all your work on Today’s Hearing. As always, it is a pleasure to work with you. Perhaps we should do some White House bowling next week.”
Two weeks after the hearing, in preparation for President Trump’s March 29, 2018, speech in Ohio on infrastructure, Herrgott again blanketed Senate contacts with requests for support, coordinating positive tweets and statements from numerous senators. The day before the speech, Herrgott asked to set up a call with Commerce staffers. A few hours after the call, a staffer emailed Herrgott: “Should be set on a tweet from the chairman. Timing wise, right after the speech?”
“Yah. Right after is perfect,” Herrgott responded. “There is good stuff on White House twitter for to RT now as well. . . . Thanks for all your help.”
Herrgott followed up with the Senate staffer the morning of the speech, saying, “Here are excerpts of POTUS’ speech that are cleared for release. POTUS is likely to make more edits to the speech, but this is good enough for you to use as you please. The key is to hit on ‘We expect with the President’s leadership, working in lock step with Congress, further bipartisan infrastructure legislation is going to happen this year AND that work has already begun.’ I would also recommend a ‘#WAHOO—let the games Begin’ but your choice entirely.”
Herrgott requested similarly optimistic tweets and statements from at least four more senators, according to records obtained by American Oversight. Herrgott sent the email above to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s policy adviser, though he changed his suggested hashtag sign-off to “#WAHOO—IT’S ROAD BUILDING TIME.”
McConnell’s staff put out a tweet along the lines of Herrgott’s suggested message. “We did [send a tweet]. And the President re-tweeted it.” The tweet, from McConnell’s account, read: “Rebuilding America’s #infrastructure is a critical issue that @POTUS, his Administration, and Congress are continuing to work to achieve together.”
Herrgott was apparently pleased with the result: “Boom,” he wrote to McConnell’s staffer.
Herrgott, though, was not done providing communications advice to the Senate majority leader. Soon after McConnell put out the tweet, Herrgott got in touch with McConnell’s policy adviser again, this time to say: “If anyone asks. Push back with these words. Everyone is still full speed ahead. . . ‘The plan I have outlined in Congress is built on four key principles. It can be passed in one bill or in a series of measures. What matters is that we get the job done.’”
Herrgott also asked Senators Capito, Dan Sullivan, and Todd Young to put out supportive tweets and statements. “Would Senator Capito be willing to put out a tweet or statement showing strong optimism about getting something done this year, in addition to the Omni,” Herrgott wrote to Capito’s legislative director. Herrgott also included the excerpts from Trump’s speech and proposed talking points that he’d sent to Senate Commerce and McConnell staffers.
Herrgott had the same request of Sullivan:
And of Young:
It’s unclear from the records whether Capito’s staff put out a statement or tweet, but Sullivan and Young both did. A few hours after Herrgott reached out, Sullivan’s communications director emailed Herrgott links to a press release and a tweet from the senator on Trump’s infrastructure speech.
“Boom,” Herrgott replied.
Young’s communications director also sent Herrgott an email with a link to a supportive tweet from the senator.
Despite Herrgott’s requests for enthusiastic statements from Congress, and senators’ willingness to fulfill them, the administration has made little progress on addressing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Two years into the administration, agencies have taken little action to address the nation’s infrastructure needs, and in December, as the current shutdown loomed ahead, Trump even threatened to veto an infrastructure bill if he didn’t get his border-wall funding.