WASHINGTON — Two weeks after signing executive orders to push forward the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, President Donald Trump told a group of county sheriffs gathered for a White House roundtable that he didn’t think the projects were controversial.
“You know, usually, if I do something it’s like bedlam, right?” Trump said at the February event. “I haven’t had one call from anybody.”
His comments ignored months of public protest from Native Americans and environmentalists at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation and in Washington. It’s also a strong contrast to Trump’s more recent handling of an administrative decision to allow trophy hunting of African elephants.
Less than 15 minutes after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Friday issued its official decision that it was reversing an Obama-era ban on importing elephants killed for sport in two African countries, Trump announced on Twitter that he was suspending the decision. Trump called trophy hunting a “horror show” and said he’s unlikely to allow for such imports.
African elephants have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1978. A provision of the law, however, allows for sport-hunted trophies to be imported if the government determines that hunting will help safeguard the population. FWS also quietly rolled back protections for African lions last month, releasing new guidelines that allow big game hunters to bring back to the U.S. animal trophies from hunts in parts of Africa.
The president’s move was highly unexpected for a number of reasons — not the least of which is that, in the face of fierce public backlash, Trump chose to side with the conservation community over gun rights and hunting advocacy groups. The National Rifle Association, Safari Club International and his own federal wildlife agency had claimed that lifting the ban would, counterintuitively, help safeguard the elephant population.
Animal rights advocates, environmentalists, celebrities and lawmakers celebrated Trump’s intervention, while employees of the agency — under the leadership of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, an avid hunter — were reportedly sent scrambling.
But everyone seems to be scratching their heads about what exactly happened, and what Trump’s seeming reversal actually means.
Tanya Sanerib, a senior attorney with the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity, told HuffPost they’re trying to figure out the legal implications, and why Trump felt compelled to act on this particular issue.
The administration did take quite a bit of heat for lifting the ban, including from conservative TV anchors and lawmakers. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called on Trump to abandon the decision, saying “elephants and other big game in Africa are blood currency for terrorist organizations.” Lara Trump, the wife of Trump’s son Eric and an animal welfare advocate, visited the White House on Friday, although it was unclear if she discussed the elephant issue with Trump, The Washington Post reported.
“Is it the public outcry? Is it that we have all these Republicans who are disagreeing with this decision?” Sanerib wondered. “Is it Lara Trump? Is it other factors? Who knows.”
Trump is not typically one to succumb to public pressure. Beyond unpopular pipeline decisions, he’s also aggressively defended controversial moves to roll back Obama-era climate policies and pull the U.S. out of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change, despite widespread condemnation from the public and American businesses.
For Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, the takeaway from Trump’s halting of the elephant decision is this: “Trump’s actions appear to suggest the existence of a small island of decency in a sea of sociopathy.”
Citing White House aides, The New York Times reported Monday that Trump’s intervention was fueled by a simple fact: He likes elephants. He reportedly learned of the change via news reports, and had not been involved in the decision.
Trump’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, are avid big game hunters. In a now-famous photo that surfaced in 2012, Trump Jr. can be seen holding the tail of an elephant he shot and killed in Africa. But years before he became president, Trump voiced disapproval of his sons’ passion:
With its double about-face, the Trump administration has opened the door for a potential slew of legal challenges, including from groups with which it is typically aligned, as E&E News reported Monday. It is also the latest example of dysfunction from an administration that’s been all but plagued by it.
“There are clear indications here that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing,” Sanerib told HuffPost.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit Monday against the administration in an effort to keep in place the Obama-era bans on importing elephants and lions. The government’s actions are “arbitrary and capricious,” and it has “failed to rationally explain its 180 degree turn from determining that Zimbabwe is incapable of managing elephant hunting sustainably, to proclaiming open season on elephants and lions in Zimbabwe,” the conservation groups wrote in their complaint.
Sanerib said the lawsuit also seeks to clear up confusion about where things currently stand. So far, she said, nothing suggests the new trophy policies on importing sport-hunted trophies have indeed been reversed.
As of Tuesday morning, a page on FWS’s website still listed the import of lion trophies from Zimbabwe and Zambia as “approved,” and provided guidelines for how hunters can apply to obtain permits. The FWS has, however, removed its official announcement regarding elephant trophy imports from those same countries.
Reached for comment on the change, a FWS spokesperson referred HuffPost to its parent agency, the Interior Department. Interior did not respond to questions about the response it has received since last week or the impact Trump’s verbal hold has had on the policy changes.
The White House also managed to escape having to discuss the issue during Monday’s press conference, as not a single reporter asked about Trump’s action.
Elly Pepper, deputy director of NRDC’s wildlife trade initiative, said that while Trump’s apparent backpedaling of the FWS decision is “promising” and has shined a light on the widespread support for protecting elephants, a temporary suspension is not enough. The lawsuit, she said, is about holding him accountable and ensuring that he isn’t simply trying to escape public criticism, only to quietly start issuing permits once the dust settles.
“We can’t rely on tweets when the fate of species is at stake,” she said.