Trump Interior pick faces contentious fight

Trump Interior pick faces contentious fight
© Greg Nash

President Trump’s pick for the No. 2 position at the Interior Department is facing a contentious confirmation hearing on Thursday. 

David Bernhardt, a Bush administration veteran and energy industry lobbyist, will testify before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday, with Democrats promising to probe the deputy secretary nominee's history both in government and on K Street. 

Republicans appear likely to broadly support Bernhardt’s nomination, but his opponents are gearing up to scrutinize his professional history and the role he intends to play in a Trump Interior Department that had already ruffled feathers among greens and conservationists. 

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Democrats are likely to drill down into Bernhardt’s time as chairman of the natural resources law practice at Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck, a post he took after an eight-year tenure in former President George W. Bush’s Interior Department. 

Financial disclosure forms show Bernhardt earned at least $1.1 million last year at the firm, including lobbying work on behalf of at least a dozen energy and mining companies and industry groups. 

“He has represented the legal and political interests of a host of different extractive and energy development corporations, and I just see him as being hopelessly conflicted,” said Tyson Slocum, the director of Public Citizen's Energy Program, which has pushed senators to oppose Bernhardt. 

Critics contend Bernhardt’s lobbying past makes him a “walking conflict of interest,” as 150 groups opposed to his nomination wrote in a letter to senators this week. 

“The list of clients he has worked for over the last eight years is so long and covers so many different areas that if he were to actually recuse himself from any work that values his clients, there wouldn’t be anything for him to work on at Interior,” said Aaron Weiss, the spokesman for the Center for Western Priorities.

In an ethics filing, Bernhardt promised to rescue himself from participating “personally and substantially in any particular matter involving” clients of the firm for up to one year and that he wouldn’t take part in activities in which he has a stake unless he receives an ethics waiver first.

Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellMore than 30 Senate Dems ask Trump to reconsider Central American aid cuts 737 crisis tests Boeing's clout in Washington State rules complicate push for federal data privacy law MORE (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the energy panel, last week sent Bernhardt a letter that could preview Democrats’ approach to Thursday’s hearing, asking him to clarify the extent to which he will recuse himself from Interior decisions. 

She also sought more information about his compensation, the work he did for clients and his role in Trump’s Interior transition team after the presidential election.

“It is essential that the committee and the public writ large are provided the information necessary to ensure … the deputy secretary is working exclusively to advance the public interest, rather than those of special corporate interests that seek to exploit or share resources,” she wrote.

Republicans appear likely to support Bernhardt’s nomination to the position. 

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOn The Money: Cain withdraws from Fed consideration | Says he didn't want 'pay cut' | Trump sues to block subpoena for financial records | Dems plot next move in Trump tax-return battle Cain withdraws from Fed consideration Cain says he 'won't run away from criticism' in push for Fed seat MORE (R-Alaska), the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said she is “pretty sure he’ll be able to handle himself well” at Thursday’s confirmation hearing.

“I expect he will outline his focus and perspective on energy issues and generally outline a little bit of the work he has been doing since he was last serving in an administration,” she said.

Bernhardt was an Interior official throughout the entire Bush administration, including a term as solicitor — the agency's No. 3 spot —  to which he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2006. 

Former colleagues of Bernhardt endorsed his nomination when the White House announced it in late April. 

In an Interior Department press release, acting Deputy Secretary Jim Carson said Bernhardt “will be a tremendous asset to Secretary [Ryan] Zinke.” Dale Hall, the CEO of Ducks Unlimited who led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under Bush, said he “could not be more pleased” with the nomination. 

“He is a man with personal and professional integrity that is beyond reproach and has always advocated for the proper implementation of the law,” Hall said in a statement. “We urge the Senate to quickly confirm Mr. Bernhardt for this extremely important position to the Department's expansive conservation responsibilities."

The Interior Department has so far taken a much different approach to public lands energy development than it had during the Obama administration.

Through executive orders, Trump has directed Zinke to undo a moratorium on public lands coal mining and review 27 large national monument designations. Interior is also reconsidering a hydraulic fracturing rule, a regulation limiting methane flaring from natural gas drilling sites and the Obama administration’s five-year offshore drilling plan that prevents oil exploration in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

The energy industry has broadly supported Trump’s agenda, and Kathleen Sgamma, the president of the industry-funded Western Energy Alliance, said Bernhardt’s background will help advance Trump’s “ambitious” proposals in a “legally defensible” way.

“Not only does he have the Interior experience, but he has the experience of representing many different types of clients as they’re working through the legal issues of public lands and water and species, and all the issues he’ll be dealing with,” Sgamma said. 

But Interior’s early moves have shocked environmentalists, who see Bernhardt’s nomination as another front in the battle over the future of the department. 

“When you combine his nomination with the executive orders issued by President Trump, when you combine it with the orders that Secretary Zinke has issued, this is a disturbing trend at the agency,” Slocum said.