It’s been expected from administration watchers since Ryan Zinke stepped down from his post as Secretary of the Interior, but on Monday, Trump officially announced, via a tweet, that he had nominated acting secretary David Bernhardt to take on the job full-time.
Before assuming the job as deputy secretary, Bernhardt worked as a lobbyist for the oil and gas industries. He lobbied for the ag industry. He’s overseen leasing approval millions of acres of BLM lands for resource extraction. Famously, when Bernhardt first joined the Interior Department, he carried around a small card listing all the potential conflicts of interest his position as a lobbyist presented in his new role, so that he could remember them all.
Bernhardt, a 49-year-old Colorado native is renowned for his tireless work ethic. Supporters rave about his ability to set and accomplish goals while mired in bureaucratic obstacles; Bernhardt, for example, pushed through BLM oil leases during the shutdown while most federal land agencies were shuttered. Detractors worry that this sets Bernhardt up to open even more public lands for energy production.
“David Bernhardt spent much of his career lobbying for fossil fuel and agricultural interests, and the president putting him in charge of regulating his former clients is a perfect example of everything wrong with this administration,” said Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz), Chair of the House Natural Resources Committee in a statement. “We intend to conduct vigorous oversight of Mr. Bernhardt’s industry ties and how they may influence his policy decisions. This administration has lost the benefit of the doubt, thanks in no small part to Ryan Zinke’s failed tenure at the Interior Department. We expect Mr. Bernhardt to right the ship and will act in his absence if he doesn’t.”
A former administration official has said that Bernhardt has effectively been running Interior even while Zinke was still nominally in charge, with Zinke acting as the Stetson-wearing, horse-riding face of the organization while Bernhardt actually worked the levers. During that time, Interior has auctioned off nearly 17 million acres of public land to energy interests.
In an email Bernhardt sent throughout Interior, obtained by the Washington Post, Bernhardt wrote:
“I 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.”
Environmental watchdogs remain wary, however.
“Bernhardt got this nomination as a reward for months of work cramming America’s natural heritage into a wood chipper,” said Kieran Suckling, the executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Bernhardt’s nomination will now head to the Senate for a vote.