nominate former lobbyist for Interior secretary
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump announced Monday that he
will nominate David Bernhardt, a veteran lobbyist who has helped
orchestrate the administration’s push to expand oil and gas
drilling as the Interior Department’s number-two official, to
serve as the next secretary.
If confirmed, Bernhardt, a 49-year old Colorado native known for
his unrelenting work habits, would be well positioned to roll
back even more of the Obama-era conservation policies he has
worked to unravel since joining Interior a year and-a-half ago.
He has helmed the department as acting secretary since Jan. 2,
when Ryan Zinke resigned amid multiple ethics probes.
“David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we
look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!”
While Zinke reveled in public displays of his affinity for the
outdoors — riding horseback while on the job and touting his
enthusiasm for hunting — Bernhardt is the ultimate insider. A
former Capitol Hill staffer who served as Interior’s top lawyer
under George W. Bush, Bernhardt has made it his mission to
master legal and policy arcana in order to advance conservative
“It’s a humbling privilege to be nominated to lead a Department
whose mission I love, to accomplish the balanced, common sense
vision of our President,” Bernhardt said in a statement Monday.
A former partner at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, he walked
into the No. 2 job at Interior with so many potential conflicts
of interest he has to carry a small card listing them all. He
initially had to recuse himself from “particular matters”
directly affecting 26 former clients in order to confirm with
the Trump administration’s ethics pledge.
While Bernhardt has deliberately adopted a low-profile while
steering the 70,000-person department, he has used his expertise
to promote the president’s agenda at every turn. He is working
to streamline environmental reviews to expedite energy projects,
and has promoted overhauling the Endangered Species Act to
provide more certainty to developers.
In an interview last year with The Washington Post, Bernhardt
said he immerses himself in the details of every significant
policy decision because he knows they can have enormous
ramifications for Americans across the country.
“I don’t shy away from reading a massive amount of material
before decision,” he said. “And I don’t, for a minute, not think
about the impact that it’s going to have for good or ill.”
During the 35-day shutdown, Bernhardt employed novel tactics to
ensure oil and gas drillers could continue to obtain permits and
national parks would stay open even as most of the department
was shuttered. When trash piled up and human waste began posing
a health risk at popular national parks, for example, Bernhardt
instructed superintendents to tap fees these sites had collected
to address their most visible problems.
Industry representatives praised the selection. Kathleen Sgamma,
president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, said in
an email that like Trump’s recent nominee to head the
Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, Bernhardt is
better prepared to enact policy changes than his predecessor.
“He’s done an excellent job setting and implementing policy the
last year and a half, so it will be a seamless transition,” she
said. “As with EPA, the environmental groups forced the original
Cabinet secretaries out only to have the even more capable
policy people who know the agencies in depth take over.”
Eberhart, a Trump donor and CEO of the drilling-services company
Canary, offered his praise for Bernhardt with a succinct
description: “There is no one who knows DOI better than David
Bernhardt. He is effective and competent.”
Bernhardt’s industry-friendly policies, coupled with his
extensive work as a lobbyist, have earned him the enmity of
environmental groups and many Democrats.
“The ethical questions surrounding David Bernhardt and his
commitment to pandering to oil, coal, and gas executives make
former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke look like a tree-hugging
environmentalist in comparison,” said Vicky Wyatt of Greenpeace
USA. “And Ryan Zinke was a disaster.”
advocacy groups like the Western Values Project, which targeted
Zinke while in office, have argued Bernhardt’s lobbying past
disqualifies him for serving in Interior’s top post. On the day
Trump announced Zinke would step down, the group launched a
website to highlight Bernhardt’s work in the private sector.
bottom line is that Bernhardt is too conflicted to even be
Acting Secretary,” said Western Values Project executive
director Chris Saeger. “At the very least the American public
deserved to know more about the man behind the curtain who is
actually running the show at Interior and could soon be fully
responsible for managing our country’s public lands, wildlife
and natural resources.”
of one centrist conservation group, the Theodore Roosevelt
Conservation Partnership, said in an email Monday that his
organization would back Bernhardt despite their policy
been a steady hand during challenging times at the Department
and he has worked to strengthen relationships with the states
and the nation’s sportsmen and women.,” said the group’s
president, Whit Fosburgh. “Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination to be
Secretary of the Interior places him in an unenviable position
to balance the priorities of the Trump Administration with the
mission of the Department.”
Initially Bernhardt was reluctant to take the post when
approached by the White House, according to administration
officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to
discuss personnel matters. And as recently as a week ago, Trump
was considering tapping former Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., a
conservative who retired from the House in 2017.
But the shutdown, coupled with Zinke’s departure, also gave
Bernhardt an opportunity to spend more time with the president
as Trump weighed how to fill the vacancy. During a Cabinet
meeting last month, Bernhardt sat next to the president, and he
also accompanied Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on a recent
trip to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the National
A former senior administration official said Bernhardt rarely
interacted with Trump in the first two years because Zinke was
so determined to be in front of the president and taking credit
for the department’s accomplishments. But Bernhardt “actually
ran the agency,” the official said. “Zinke wasn’t running the
agency.” The official requested anonymity to describe internal
conversations between the White House and the agency.
Bernhardt made it clear he was prepared to leave the
administration if the president tapped someone else for the top
job, according to two individuals familiar with the matter.
Bernhardt’s opponents described him as a skilled policy and
legal expert who has spearheaded the regulatory rollbacks and
accelerated oil and gas leasing at a department that manages 500
million acres of U.S. land.
former lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry, Bernhardt would be
even more adept than his predecessor at advancing Trump’s
drill-anywhere agenda that prioritizes pollution over people,”
said Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society.
In the last two years Interior has auctioned off more than 16.8
million acres of public land for oil and gas drilling, according
to the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, 2.3
million of which was leased. In the first quarter of 2019,
nearly 2.3 million more acres are on the chopping block.
Bernhardt has played a key role in shrinking two national
monuments in southern Utah, as well as pushing to open up the
land now outside their boundaries to be opened up for coal and
mineral mining. While opponents of the move came to public
comment meetings at Bureau of Land Management offices in
October, Bernhardt dismissed that criticism as coming from out
of state, including California.
Zinke took extensive personal time while serving as secretary
and traveled frequently to his homes in Whitefish, Montana and
Santa Barbara, California, Bernhardt has spent much of his time
in the office working at headquarters or at home in northern
DuBray, who worked for Bernhardt on Indian trust issues during
the Bush administration and retired last year as the U.S. Bureau
of Reclamation’s director of public affairs, said his former
boss was focused on maximizing efficiency even as they toured
some of America’s most scenic sites.
have long days, in Portland, Anchorage and Arizona, I think
David was still game to keep going, others might have wanted to
see a local site or get outside,” DuBray said. “There’s a finite
amount of time, and David has always been keenly aware of that —
we have limited time to get our agenda accomplished.”
Bernhardt has made a point of consulting with Republican
lawmakers since returning to Interior, his support among
congressional Democrats has slipped since he was confirmed. The
Senate approved him as deputy secretary on a vote of 53-43,
largely along party lines. While the Republican margin of
control in the Senate all but ensures that he will win
confirmation, he is unlikely to attract as much Democratic
support as he did a year and-a-half ago.
Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-N.M., has
already indicated he intends to call Bernhardt before his panel
to testify about some of the department’s policy decisions, and
confirmation hearings in the Senate would allow Democrats to
press for answers on an array of fronts.
Bernhardt, for his part, has made an effort to reach out to
Interior staff through a series of occasional department-wide
emails. On Sunday he sent an email praising their dedication,
even as he blasted Obama administration officials for not
upholding the department’s ethical standards.
believe that serving the public is one of the highest callings a
person can undertake,” he wrote in an email Sunday, which was
obtained by The Washington Post. “This belief has been
reaffirmed in the past few weeks as many of you carried on
fulfilling the Department’s mission with the knowledge that the
timing of your pay was highly uncertain. This perspective is why
the notion that a public servant would breach the public trust
to enrich themselves so deeply offends me. Such conduct
undermines everything I believe in regarding public service.”
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