Ashley Parker is a White House reporter for The Washington Post.
“President Trump abruptly reversed his administration’s Thursday decision to allow elephants shot for sport in Zimbabwe and Zambia to be imported back to the United States as trophies, saying in a tweet Friday night that he was putting the decision “on hold” until further review.
“Put big game trophy decision on hold until such time as I review all conservation facts,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Under study for years. Will update soon with Secretary Zinke. Thank you!”
Trump’s sudden tweet halted a decision by his own administration, announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday, to end a 2014 government ban on big-game trophy hunting in Zimbabwe and Zambia, saying it would help the conservation of the species. Under U.S. law the remains of African elephants, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, can only be imported if federal officials have determined that hunting them benefits the species more broadly.
But the Fish and Wildlife decision almost immediately was met with a fierce backlash and outcry from animal rights activists and environmentalists — as well as prominent conservatives and a key House committee chairman.
In a tweet, Fox News host Laura Ingraham expressed her dismay, writing, “I don’t understand how this move by @realDonaldTrump Admin will not INCREASE the gruesome poaching of elephants. Stay tuned.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) issued a statement Friday noting that in light of Zimbabwe’s current political turmoil — President Robert Mugabe is now under house arrest after a military coup — it made no sense to ease restrictions on trophy imports.
“In this moment of turmoil, I have zero confidence that the regime — which for years has promoted corruption at the highest levels — is properly managing and regulating conservation programs,” Royce said. “Furthermore, I am not convinced that elephant populations in the area warrant overconcentration measures.”
The president’s decision Friday evening did not seem well coordinated with his West Wing communications team. Just hours earlier at the daily news briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had defended the decision, saying it was the result of a review by “career officials” that began in 2014 under President Barack Obama.
“This review established that both Zambia and Zimbabwe had met new standards, strict international conservation standards that allowed Americans to resume hunting in those countries,” Sanders said.
Career officials at Fish and Wildlife did make the decision to renew the imports, according to individuals briefed on the decision who asked for anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. But political appointees at Interior did press for resolution of the issue, which is a top priority for hunting industry allies of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Hours after Trump’s Twitter announcement, Zinke issued a statement: “President Trump and I have talked and both believe that conservation and healthy herds are critical. As a result, in a manner compliant with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations, the issuing of permits is put on hold as the decision is being reviewed.”
On Saturday morning Trump retweeted accolades from two conservative television hosts, Piers Morgan and Greta Van Susteren.
Van Susteren thanked him for the reversal, writing, “this is important to so many of us,” while Morgan posted a screen shot of the president’s retweet, tweeting, “For those who think Donald Trump is never capable of changing his mind or being persuaded by counter-argument….”
The move also drew praise from some of the administration’s harshest critics, including Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. “Grateful to President Trump for reassessing elephant and lion trophy hunting imports,” Pacelle said in a statement. “This is the kind of trade we don’t need.”