Trump Interior pick weathers deluge of ethics questions at hearing

David Bernhardt, President TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE's nominee to lead the Department of Interior, escaped questioning during his confirmation hearing Thursday relatively unscathed after Democrats pressed him about his former lobbyist ties and actions at the agency.

Bernhardt, who has served as acting Interior secretary since January, defended controversial policies he’s played a hand in developing at the agency while testifying before lawmakers on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. 

“No one dedicates nearly a decade of their life to any organization unless they fundamentally believe in it," he told the Senate panel.

In their opening statements, both committee chairwoman Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry GOP senators plan to tune out impeachment week Pay America's Coast Guard MORE (R-Alaska) and Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinCentrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics MORE (W.Va.), the panel's top Democrat, lauded Bernhardt for his years of experience at the department and his work on public land issues. Murkowski said there was “no question” that Bernhardt could handle the job.

"I believe you are qualified and have a great wealth of experience,” Manchin added. “It is clear that you have the knowledge and experience to serve as secretary.”

GOP senators highlighted Bernhardt’s résumé, including his role as Interior solicitor under former President George W. Bush, to explain why they planned to vote to confirm him.

Sen. Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyUN Security Council to meet after Turkey launches Syria offensive Trump faces growing GOP revolt on Syria To win the federal paid family leave debate, allow states to lead the way MORE (R-La.) called Bernhardt “the most experienced candidate since the '40s.”

Democrats, meanwhile, raised concerns about potential conflicts of interests for Bernhardt, who has served as an oil lobbyist.

Bernhardt has had multiple stints at the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, representing clients including Eni Petroleum, Sempra Energy, Halliburton Energy Services, Targa Energy, Noble Energy and the Westlands Water District.

Under ethics standards, he has recused himself from matters involving a number of former clients and carries a card with him listing all the recusals. 

“I think you are so conflicted. I think that even if you are confirmed you will have to disqualify yourself from so many matters I don’t know how you will spend your day,” said Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenFalling investment revives attacks against Trump's tax cuts Overnight Health Care: CDC links vitamin E oil to vaping illnesses | White House calls Pelosi drug price plan 'unworkable' | Dem offers bill for state-based 'Medicare for All' White House says Pelosi plan to lower drug prices 'unworkable' MORE (D-Ore.).

Wyden mentioned the policies of former Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics Overnight Energy: Perry to step down as Energy secretary | Future of big-game hunting council up in the air | Dems lose vote against EPA power plant rule MORE, who resigned from Interior in January amid ethics concerns, as to why he was skeptical of Bernhardt.

Bernhardt was confirmed as Zinke’s deputy in July 2017.

“I’m thinking about how Ryan Zinke sat in your seat. Nine times he said he liked Teddy Roosevelt but he left under an ethical cloud. I’m seeing no evidence that you objected to Ryan Zinke’s actions,” Wyden said.

Issues at the top of Democrats’ minds included a New York Times report that Bernhardt played an integral part in killing the release of a Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) report that found two chemicals routinely found in pesticides were overly harmful to various endangered species. The report was initiated under the Obama administration

Asked about the article, and the pages from the report released under a Freedom of Information Act request, Bernhardt blamed the media for false information.

“The news article you are referring to is not even close to that ... even in that article, the FWS employee misquoted is there,” said Bernhardt.

The Interior official told senators he made the decision to keep the report from being released based on legal standards, arguing that department lawyers were in agreement.

“In our world we can’t ignore a law and come up with a scheme, you have to have it fit the law,” said Bernhardt. “I said let's go kick it over to career lawyers and their assessment was exactly as mine.”

Bernhardt has also been under the microscope by animal rights groups and environmentalists for for having helped Interior work behind the scenes to draft new rules for the agency’s approach to the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Trump administration, as well as several Republican lawmakers, has taken the position that the law — meant to protect imperiled species — is currently too broad and economically challenging to landowners and the fossil fuel industry.

In July, the Department of Interior under Zinke introduced a new proposal to roll back ESA protections.

"I've worked with ESA for 30 years. I actually think the act has wonderful goals and objectives. I think there is some ambiguity in the act,” Bernhardt told lawmakers on Thursday.

During the hearing, Bernhardt also faced scrutiny over a recording released by Reveal over the weekend that publicized conversations between oil and gas executives boasting of unprecedented access to Bernhardt in 2017.

“I’m not saying your Big Oil’s guy, the Big Oil lobbyists are making those claims,” said Wyden.

Asked about how he plans to maintain ethics and prevent conflicts both for himself and the department, Bernhardt said he was committed to the highest level of trust.

I believe that public trust is a public responsibility and that maintaining an ethical culture is critical,” he said.

“I fully comply with my ethics agreement, ethics laws and my ethics pledge, and I will do so in the future.”

On whether he thought adhering to that ethics pledge meant he’d have to remove himself from many meetings with former clients or discussions on issues he previously lobbied for, Bernhardt pushed back, saying that he's "pretty good" about going up against "these guys.”

"And I would say you want to have your A quarterback on the team,” he said.