President Trump this week unleashed a new group of advocates in his failed push to convince the Senate to repeal ObamaCare: his Cabinet.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke were both used in the battle, highlighting the president’s willingness to exert pressure in new ways on lawmakers opposing his agenda.
The push — from two Cabinet secretaries without healthcare oversight — drew backlash from lawmakers who already have strained relationships with the White House.
Zinke’s threats in a phone call to Alaska Sens. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump, allies launch onslaught as midterms kick into gear Emboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - DC prepares for Saturday of festivals & Jan. 6 demonstration MORE and Dan Sullivan, in particular, led to rancor. The Interior secretary told the two Republican senators that the Trump administration might not support economic development efforts in their state if Murkowski didn’t support the GOP’s ObamaCare repeal effort.
Sullivan told the Alaska Dispatch News that the call was “troubling.” Murkowski downplayed the matter publicly, telling reporters on Thursday that what Zinke “shared with me was that the president was not pleased.”
“I think it’s very clear based on my conversation with the secretary that he was just sharing the concern that the president had expressed to him to pass on to me,” she added.
With her actions, Murkowski then appeared to illustrate the risks of Trump’s pressure campaign.
She voted against the “skinny” ObamaCare repeal measure, which failed in a 49-51 vote.
And she canceled a Thursday Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing vote on six Interior and Energy nominees, an incident she called a “hiccup” unrelated to Zinke’s call. Murkowski chairs the panel, which writes Interior’s budget.
Democrats have raised ethical concerns with Zinke’s actions.
Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) have asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and inspector general to investigate the secretary's call to Murkowski and Sullivan.
“I don't think that's the function of the secretary of Interior, nor should it be the function of any Cabinet member, to be the enforcers for the administration,” Grijalva said.
“I'm sure the tit-for-tat situation that happens in politics more than once, that does occur. But this is heavy-handed.”
Neither the Interior Department nor Energy Department responded to requests for comment.
Perry’s advocacy was less in-your-face. He wrote an op-ed in the Cleveland Plain Dealer advocating the healthcare debate’s “historic opportunity for Congress to finally empower people and states, and move control out of Washington.” The White House sent the article to reporters, and the Department of Energy’s press shop tweeted it to its followers.
Perry didn’t mention the Energy Department in the op-ed, which instead focused on his tenure as governor of Texas. But penning the article — and allowing an official DOE social media account to highlight it — raised eyebrows among good-government groups and Democrats.
Pallone requested a GAO investigation, calling it a “potential misuse of taxpayer funds.” Democrats on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee replied to the tweet, saying, “Too much time on your hands, @SecretaryPerry? Try doing your *actual* job & responding to our [oversight] letters.”
The Energy Department eventually deleted the tweet.
Government watchdogs and ethics experts say the outreach is unusual.
There’s nothing wrong or particularly noteworthy about an administration official nudging lawmakers toward supporting a certain policy, even if it’s not under their purview, said Tyson Slocum, the director of the energy program at Public Citizen.
For instance, Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson, the secretaries of Education and Housing and Urban Development, respectively, put out statements in June supporting Trump’s decision to pull the United States from the Paris climate agreement.
But Slocum said the reportedly aggressive nature of Zinke’s call and the public advocacy from Perry are unique.
“This was a Trump initiative, and it's unfortunately very consistent,” Slocum said, noting the president spoke with Murkowski the day before Zinke’s call.
“He seems to think that running the government and the presidency is the same as running his private business, and he can use taxpayer-funded institutions however he sees fit. ... That's the real thing here.”
Richard Painter, the chief ethics lawyer in George W. Bush’s White House and a frequent cable news critic of Trump, said the Zinke call could put the White House in “very hot water” with Congress or outside investigators.
“I think the executive branch should be able to communicate with Congress. What I do not like is the White House trying to extort a vote out of an Alaska senator,” he said.
“That’s unacceptable, saying if you don’t support the president’s programs, we’re going to hurt your state economically.”
Republicans have dismissed the complaints.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday she couldn’t “speak about conversations between Cabinet members and other individuals that I wasn’t a part of and haven’t had a chance to speak to either individual about.”
But House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopGOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Westerman tapped as top Republican on House Natural Resources Committee | McMorris Rodgers wins race for top GOP spot on Energy and Commerce | EPA joins conservative social network Parler MORE (R-Utah) said the hardball approach from Cabinet secretaries is “traditional.” He said members of the Obama administration, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, had lobbied the Senate on the Defense Department’s F-22 fighter jet program, for example.
Salazar did not reply to a request for comment.
“There is no line” to cross, Bishop said. “I think Cabinet members have done that in the past and will be probably do it in the future. … There is precedent for all this. It is not unusual, it happens.”