Last Thursday, the Senate voted 56-to-41 to confirm David Bernhardt, President Trumpâ€™s pick for secretary of the interior. Four days later, the departmentâ€™s inspector general opened an ethics investigation into the new chief for potential â€śconflict of interest and other violations.â€ť
On one level, it is refreshing that Mr. Bernhardt is not under fire for the sort of unseemly personal grifting attributed to previous Trump officials. His predecessor, Ryan Zinke, whose tenure inspired some 15 ethics investigations, left office in January still dogged by a half-dozen inquiries, including whether he inappropriately profited from a Montana land deal involving the energy giant Halliburton.
The questions swirling around Mr. Bernhardt are of a more traditional, more prosaic variety that tends to arise when an agency is led by people skeptical of or actively hostile to its mission. With his close ties to fossil-fuel interests, Mr. Bernhardt was an obvious pick for President Trump, who describes his agenda as â€śenergy dominance,â€ť no matter the environmental cost. In this way, the new secretary is in the mold of other industry defenders, like Mr. Zinke and Mr. Pruitt; Andrew Wheeler, the current E.P.A. chief; and Jeffrey Clark, the former energy-industry lawyer and climate-change skeptic in charge of the Justice Departmentâ€™s environment and natural resources division.
As deputy secretary, Mr. Bernhardt indeed labored to realize Mr. Trumpâ€™s vision. As The Times noted, he â€śhas been the central policy architect not only of the administrationâ€™s efforts to open public land to energy companies, but also of a plan to loosen key provisions of the Endangered Species Act and to weaken safety and environmental rules on oil and gas drilling equipment.â€ť
During his hearing, Mr. Bernhardt assured senators that, as secretary, he would continue to â€śtirelessly promote President Trumpâ€™s goals for the Department of the Interior.â€ť
There is little doubt of this. What does need to be determined is if Mr. Bernhardt has crossed legal or ethical lines in pursuit of those goals.
Even by the standards of the ethically elastic Trump administration, this is impressive.
A former oil and gas lobbyist, Mr. Bernhardt has been under scrutiny since joining the Interior Department in 2017 as its deputy secretary. Many of the complaints now under review were revealed in a trio of investigations by The Times, which detailed allegations that Mr. Bernhardt continued to work as a lobbyist for months after filing documents claiming to have ended such work, blocked the release of a department report on the toxic effects of certain pesticides on hundreds of endangered species and used his office to champion policies favored by former clients. Separately, CNN reported that, during his tenure, the department â€śmade at least 15 policy changes, decisions or proposals that would directly benefit Bernhardtâ€™s former clients.â€ť