A Former Oil Lobbyist Quietly Wields Power Behind the Scenes at the Interior Department
Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt had a private plane problem. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson couldn’t explain how he came to own a $30,000 dining table bought on the government’s dime. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is facing at least six ethics investigations.
Many of President Trump’s Cabinet secretaries have been plagued with, and in Pruitt’s case, ousted by, scandals, grabbing massive media attention along the way. They’ve also been portrayed as examples of Washington outsiders finally getting their moment of power. But they’re not always the ones pulling the policy strings, nor do the policies they enact differ much from those enacted by the Republican mainstream.
A Mother Jones profile by Rebecca Leber describes how this pattern fits Zinke’s second in command at the Department of the Interior, former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt. “Unlike many in the nation’s capital,” Leber writes, “acknowledgement seems less important for Bernhardt than behind-the-scenes power.”
Leber goes on to describe how, during a recent town hall meeting for staff members at the Department of the Interior, “As Zinke ticked off the accomplishments of his first year—fulfilling the president’s vision for ‘energy dominance,’ selling off public lands, and taking on the Endangered Species Act—he might as well have been naming feathers in Bernhardt’s cap.”
Bernhardt, unlike his boss, is no Washington outsider. In fact, Leber reports, “Interior watchdogs say Bernhardt is the ultimate DC swamp creature. Zinke is relatively new to Interior; Bernhardt, who spent eight years at the department earlier in his career, knows the ins and outs of its labyrinthine bureaucracy.”
That knowledge means Bernhardt has the expertise to guide policies that control nearly a fifth of the United States’ landmass, and a range of competing priorities, including land, oceans, Native American affairs and even wildlife.
During the Bush administration, when Bernhardt ran Interior’s congressional and legislative affairs office, Leber says he:
… [H]elped provide the legal underpinning for some of the Bush administration’s headline-grabbing initiatives, including its attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling and to allow snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. He also played a key role in implementing the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which exempted the fracking industry from certain water regulations.
After the Bush administration, Bernhardt worked for Brownstein Farber, a lobbying and law firm, where he lobbied on behalf of oil industry clients, the same ones his decisions can benefit today.
Leber reports that he also knows how to work the system and how to conceal his activities:
His calendars often have little detail in them; the environmental group Western Values Project has noted how few of his emails turn up in their frequent Freedom of Information Act requests to the Interior. “Kind of amazing that he can do anything without leaving a paper trail behind him,” said Aaron Weiss, media director of Center for Western Priorities, another conservation group.
Right now, Bernhardt is consolidating his power behind the scenes, but he could be gearing up for something bigger. “Much like Andrew Wheeler,” Leber says, “the technocrat who succeeded Scott Pruitt after his rocky stint atop the EPA, Bernhardt could seamlessly take command should Zinke succumb to ethics challenges or, as some speculate, exit to run to be Montana’s governor in 2020.”
It’s a stark reminder of how, in the Trump administration, the person with the highest title may not always be calling the shots. As Leber reminds us, “some of the most radical changes under Trump have come from the many behind-the-scenes appointees, the government insiders, who have come out of the swamp the president pledged to drain.”
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