Like Scott Pruitt before him, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has an experienced deputy steeped in the world of bureaucratic infighting waiting on deck if scandal drives him from office.
Zinke has long been expected to join a post-election exodus from the Trump administration, even before this week’s reports that Interior’s internal watchdog had referred at least one investigation into the secretary’s ethical problems to the Justice Department. And he already has an heir apparent: Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a longtime lobbyist for the oil and gas and water industries, who would be well placed to execute President Donald Trump’s pro-fossil fuel, anti-regulatory policies.
A department spokesperson said Zinke is not planning to step down soon. But he appears to be laying the groundwork to hand the reins to Bernhardt, who joined the Trump administration last year.
“For the last month, if not longer, it has been a common reference, even from the secretary, that David needs to be ready,” said a source close to Interior’s senior staff, who requested anonymity to discuss internal personnel matters. “Not anything actionable [was said], but Bernhardt could be in charge in the future and the implication was sooner rather than later.”
Zinke has faced more than a dozen probes from Interior’s Office of Inspector General and other watchdog agencies. Those include the IG’s ongoing examination of a land deal in Montana — first reported by POLITICO — that brought together Zinke and the chairman of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest energy companies, with extensive business before the Interior Department.
Allies of the secretary say the investigation is not driving him from the department, but he has discussed the possibility of seeking higher office or pursuing lucrative opportunities in the private sector.
Bernhardt, a former lobbyist known as “a lawyer’s lawyer” in the industry who is despised by environmental groups, could wind up playing a role similar to the one that longtime Washington lobbyist Andrew Wheeler has played after becoming acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency this summer. In contrast to former EPA chief Pruitt, who had alienated even many Republican lawmakers with his cascade of personal scandals, Wheeler has kept a relatively low profile while continuing to methodically roll back environmental rules and promote coal and oil production.
Bernhardt worked at Interior as solicitor during the George W. Bush administration, a time when the department had also been rocked by scandal over its division overseeing energy leases. He then went to lobbyist firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he worked for a client seeking to pump water from the Mojave Desert to Southern California.
Many environmental activists fear Bernhardt would be more effective than Zinke in executing Trump’s agenda. In fact, they contend he’s already doing it, having taken meetings with appropriations staff and led policy on top-tier items like overhauling the Endangered Species Act and reorganizing the department.
“Why would I want him to take over? I can’t say that I do,” said Aaron Weiss, media director with the Center for Western Priorities and a frequent Zinke critic who has not called for him to resign or be fired.
“There are so many parallels with the Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler situation [at EPA] and the Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt situation. Andrew Wheeler knows exactly how to pull the levers of policy,” Weiss added. “Dave Bernhardt is the exact same way. He is a walking conflict of interest.”
Zinke’s tenure has been under a cloud formed by multiple investigations into his behavior at Interior. The IG office has been looking at his ties to Halliburton Chairman Dave Lesar, who met with Zinke at Interior headquarters to discuss a real estate deal involving land owned by a nonprofit Zinke established that is now controlled by his wife.
The IG is also looking into whether Zinke bowed to political pressure in blocking requests from Native American tribes to open a Connecticut casino. That probe was requested in response to POLITICO’s report on lobbying by the tribes’ business rivals.
It is not clear which investigation was referred to the Justice Department.
The investigations might weigh on the secretary’s time but would not necessarily be the driving factor behind a resignation, sources familiar with his thinking said. One source close to Zinke, who requested anonymity to discuss internal Interior matters, pointed to the scandals that plagued former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who faced a special prosecutor’s investigation into Interior’s handling of a proposed American Indian casino in Wisconsin. (The prosecutor declined to file charges, calling evidence of wrongdoing “insufficient.”)
“Babbitt had the same kind of issues,” the source said. “Any secretary has some investigations into them.”
White House spokespeople did not reply to questions.
The scandals also haven’t appeared to shake Trump’s affinity for Zinke, three sources said, although Cabinet members have seen their fortunes change quickly in the past. Before Pruitt’s resignation in July, Trump stuck by the embattled EPA chief through months of negative press over the cut-rate rent he paid for a lobbyist’s condo, his advocacy for a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife and other flaps that became fodder for late night TV.
However, Pruitt also faced internal criticism from White House aides who saw him as an ultimately ineffective sideshow, one who rushed to complete sloppy and insufficiently supported work justifying his agency’s deregulatory actions. Zinke has not raised similar red flags, one official said.
“With Pruitt you heard more general concerns,” the White House official said. “I haven’t heard anything to even hint that there’s any concern or a loss of faith in Zinke.”
While those investigations keep Zinke’s names in headlines, Bernhardt has quietly been taking on much of the responsibility for pushing Trump’s agenda, sources have said.
Bernhardt has taken the lead in softening provisions of the Endangered Species Act, a move seen as making it easier for oil and gas companies to drill in ecologically sensitive areas.
He’s also taken a lead role in what had been Zinke’s signature policy campaign — reorganizing the department and sending more staff to Western states. Bernhardt has become “the main point of contact” on the reorganization, Jay Tilton, a spokesperson for Senate Appropriations Committee Democrats, told POLITICO.
Interior is trying to reorganize its regional jurisdiction around geographic watersheds and move headquarters for the Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies to Western states. The move that will require budgetary authority from Congress.
Requests for records have turned up scant communication from Bernhardt, a K Street veteran with ties to industries that he now regulates — raising additional fears among green groups. Western Values Project filed a lawsuit in July demanding access to Bernhardt’s official communications.
“It’s a like-for-like trade between Zinke and Bernhardt,” said Chris Saeger, director of Western Values Project, but the group is still planning to call for Zinke’s resignation. “There were lots of reasons to believe Bernhardt was the de facto secretary, anyway. And you’re going to have the same amount of scandal.”
After Pruitt resigned from EPA, the agency was left in the hands of Wheeler, a Washington veteran who lobbied for coal and other interests after a career at EPA and on the Hill. The policy direction hasn’t changed at EPA, and Trump suggestedlast week that he may tap Wheeler to become permanent administrator.
“If you look at it in the most cynical possible way, for liberals it was better for Pruitt to be there because he could do less,” said Melanie Sloan, senior adviser with American Oversight. “But it sends the wrong message.”