Ryan Zinke, President Trump’s secretary of the interior, will step down at the end of the year amid a flurry of ethics investigations. One of them, involving a land deal between a charity run by Zinke’s wife and the notorious oil titan Halliburton, has reportedly been referred to the Justice Department — a possible first step towards a criminal investigation. Zinke will be replaced at least temporarily by Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a long-time lobbyist and attorney for the oil and water resources industries who, along with his departing boss, has helped to deregulate those same industries and redirect resources to corporations with whom he was previously employed.
Bernhardt has often been pointed to as the man behind the scenes at the Interior Department, whose valuable firsthand knowledge of the industries he is now tasked with regulating comes from his work as a lobbyist for some of their biggest players, and as an attorney representing corporate groups in lawsuits against the government. I have written previously about Bernhardt’s work at the department, specifically in aiding the Westlands Water District agrobusiness group in its fight against the California state government for more complete access to the region’s water resources. Until last year, the Westlands had Bernhardt on a 20,000 dollar a month retainer.
But the case of the Westlands is only one example of Bernhardt’s singular influence at the department. His boss, Secretary Zinke, emits the same deregulatory zeal but doesn’t appear to have the depths of knowledge and influence that belong to Bernhardt. Indeed, some of the investigations hounding the resigning secretary have already begun to point in the direction of his deputy, who was in and out of the department for years and served under Bush in what one could call the interrem between lobbying gigs.
Take, for example, the claim that Zinke oversaw the mass reassignment of scientific experts and other department officials who might have stood in the way of the broad and bottomless agenda of the Trump administration. The whistleblower that got the ball rolling in this case was Joel Clement, the director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the department and self-described “climate change lead” at the agency. “I went from that job to being reassigned to the office that collects royalty checks from the oil and gas industry,” said Clement, in an interview with Science Magazine. “The political appointees were sending a very clear signal they wanted me to quit. And it was inappropriate and it was retaliation.”
Clement, however, was one of 27 department officials — many with portfolios in climate change or land conservation — inexplicably reassigned last year under Bernhardt to new positions unrelated to their prior experience. There is little evidence for why these decisions were made, although employees like Clement say they don’t maintain any illusions as to why such shuffling took place. David Wenk, who was removed from his position as superintendent of Yellowstone National Park on the eve of his retirement, said that after a conversation with Bernhardt he got the message loud and clear: “that we’re in charge and that there’s a new sheriff in town.” In all, some 50 employees in the department appear to have been moved around in this way, decisions that were the subject of a Special Counsel investigation into the new cadre of Trump administration appointees at the top.
The trouble with Bernhardt is his long list of former clients, which include 19 energy companies, four water companies, and two mining companies. At times, it can be hard to determine whether the latest fracas over deregulation is born of a specific political favor or a governing ideology that puts no stock in protecting people and the environment from corporate overreach. “The minute I walk out of that firm, I have no interest in their interest,” Bernhardt said during his confirmation hearing, which due to the volume of his corporate experience was much more contentious than that of Zinke. “If I get a whiff of something coming my way that involves a client or involves my firm, I’m going to make that item run straight to the ethics office.”
Such claims have not, however, prevented Bernhardt from having undisclosed meetings with lobbyists from his former client companies like American Petroleum and Halliburton. In fact, many of the deputy secretary’s priorities as a public official have simply been recycled from his time as a lobbyist, when he strove to dismantle broad regulations like the Endangered Species Act on behalf of clients like the Westlands Water District and the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
Bernhardt’s effectiveness at the department demonstrates the absurdity of his ethics pledge — in which he promised to observe a waiting period before taking any direct actions involving his own firm and some of his former clients — and all those like it. A department official need not shake the hands of any CEOs to roll back regulation on methane emissions that benefit their companies. “It’s not so much who has he helped. It’s who hasn’t he helped in industry so far,” said Bobby McEnaney of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The notion that he could extricate himself from benefitting his former clients is impossible.”
Bernhardt, who will be sworn in as acting secretary on January 1st, may end up with the position permanently, according to a source at Politico. Trump, Politico reported, “has been happy with [Bernhardt’s] effectiveness in running the bulk of the agency on Zinke’s watch,” and is too caught up in the seemingly endless cascade of resignations in his administration to bother finding anyone else.
According to an anonymous lawyer involved in a case with the department, however, there’s a chance Bernhardt may himself not want the job and see more value in remaining in, or perhaps retreating even further into, the background. “Some folks think he may not want to stick around for another two years and may actually see all of the ceremonial speech-making functions of the secretary as a distraction from getting done the things he wants,” said the lawyer.
Zinke, whose departure has been routinely compared to that of the similarly-inundated former EPA chief Scott Pruitt, is leaving with praise from the president and his associates — unlike many other set suns of this administration. Trump has continued to defend Zinke in the face of mounting accusations, saying that he has “accomplished much” during his tenure in the office.
Zinke released a statement describing how “incredibly proud” he was of the work he’d done in the administration. “However, after 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations,” he said, a curiously apropos claim to martyrdom in the name of the taxpayer in light of the evidence of luxury and excess driving those same allegations.