“David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!,” Trump tweeted.
While Zinke reveled in public displays of his affinity for the outdoors — riding horseback while on the job and touting his enthusiasm for hunting — Bernhardt is the ultimate insider. A former Capitol Hill staffer who served as Interior’s top lawyer under George W. Bush, Bernhardt has made it his mission to master legal and policy arcana to advance conservative policy goals.
“It’s a humbling privilege to be nominated to lead a Department whose mission I love, to accomplish the balanced, common sense vision of our president,” Bernhardt said in a statement Monday.
A former partner at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, he walked into the No. 2 job at Interior with so many potential conflicts of interest he has to carry a small card listing them all. He initially had to recuse himself from “particular matters” directly affecting 26 former clients to conform with the Trump administration’s ethics pledge.
While Bernhardt has deliberately adopted a low profile as he steers the 70,000-person department, he has used his expertise to promote the president’s agenda at every turn. He is working to streamline environmental reviews to expedite energy projects and has promoted overhauling the Endangered Species Act to provide more certainty to developers.
In an interview last year with The Washington Post, Bernhardt said he immerses himself in the details of every significant policy decision because he knows they can have enormous ramifications for Americans across the country.
“I don't shy away from reading a massive amount of material before decision,” he said. “And I don't, for a minute, not think about the impact that it's going to have for good or ill.”
During the 35-day shutdown, Bernhardt employed novel tactics to ensure oil and gas drillers could continue to obtain permits and national parks would stay open even as most of the department was shuttered. When trash piled up and human waste began posing a health risk at popular national parks, for example, Bernhardt instructed superintendents to tap fees these sites had collected to address their most visible problems.
Industry representatives praised the selection. Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, said in an email that, like Trump’s recent nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Andrew Wheeler, Bernhardt is better prepared to enact policy changes than his predecessor.
“He’s done an excellent job setting and implementing policy the last year and a half, so it will be a seamless transition,” she said. “As with EPA, the environmental groups forced the original Cabinet secretaries out only to have the even more capable policy people who know the agencies in depth take over.”
Dan Eberhart, a Trump donor and CEO of the drilling-services company Canary, offered his praise for Bernhardt with a succinct description: “There is no one who knows DOI better than David Bernhardt. He is effective and competent.”
Bernhardt’s industry-friendly policies, coupled with his extensive work as a lobbyist, have earned him the enmity of environmental groups and many Democrats.
“The ethical questions surrounding David Bernhardt and his commitment to pandering to oil, coal and gas executives make former interior secretary Ryan Zinke look like a tree-hugging environmentalist in comparison,” said Vicky Wyatt of Greenpeace USA. “And Ryan Zinke was a disaster."
Liberal advocacy groups such as the Western Values Project, which targeted Zinke while he was in office, have argued that Bernhardt’s lobbying past disqualifies him for serving in Interior’s top post. On the day Trump announced that Zinke would step down, the group launched a website to highlight Bernhardt’s work in the private sector.
“The bottom line is that Bernhardt is too conflicted to even be acting secretary,” Western Values Project executive director Chris Saeger said. “At the very least the American public deserved to know more about the man behind the curtain who is actually running the show at Interior and could soon be fully responsible for managing our country’s public lands, wildlife and natural resources.”
The head of one centrist conservation group, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said in an email Monday that his organization would back Bernhardt despite their policy differences.
“He has been a steady hand during challenging times at the Department and he has worked to strengthen relationships with the states and the nation’s sportsmen and women,” said the group’s president, Whit Fosburgh. “Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination to be secretary of the Interior places him in an unenviable position to balance the priorities of the Trump Administration with the mission of the Department.”
Initially Bernhardt was reluctant to take the post when approached by the White House, according to administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters. And as recently as a week ago, Trump was considering tapping former congresswoman Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.), a conservative who retired from the House in 2017.
But the shutdown, coupled with Zinke’s departure, also gave Bernhardt an opportunity to spend more time with the president as Trump weighed the vacancy. During a Cabinet meeting last month, Bernhardt sat next to the president, and he also accompanied Trump and Vice President Pence on a recent trip to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial near the Mall.
A former senior administration official said Bernhardt rarely interacted with Trump in the first two years because Zinke was so determined to be in front of the president and taking credit for the department’s accomplishments. But Bernhardt “actually ran the agency,” the official said. “Zinke wasn’t running the agency.” The official requested anonymity to describe internal conversations between the White House and the agency.
Bernhardt made it clear he was prepared to leave the administration if the president tapped someone else for the top job, according to two individuals familiar with the matter.
Even Bernhardt’s opponents described him as a skilled policy and legal expert who has spearheaded the regulatory rollbacks and accelerated oil and gas leasing at a department that manages 500 million acres of U.S. land.
“As a former lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry, Bernhardt would be even more adept than his predecessor at advancing Trump’s drill-anywhere agenda that prioritizes pollution over people,” said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society.
In the last two years Interior has auctioned off more than 16.8 million acres of public land for oil and gas drilling, according to the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, 2.3 million of which was leased. In the first quarter of 2019, nearly 2.3 million more acres are on the chopping block.
Bernhardt has played a key role in shrinking two national monuments in southern Utah, as well as pushing to open up the land now outside their boundaries for coal and mineral mining.
Dan DuBray, who worked for Bernhardt on Indian trust issues during the Bush administration and retired last year as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s director of public affairs, said his former boss was focused on maximizing efficiency even as they toured some of America’s most scenic sites.
“We’d have long days, in Portland, Anchorage and Arizona; I think David was still game to keep going; others might have wanted to see a local site or get outside,” DuBray said. “There’s a finite amount of time, and David has always been keenly aware of that — we have limited time to get our agenda accomplished.”
Bernhardt has made a point of consulting with Republican lawmakers since returning to Interior, but his support among congressional Democrats has slipped since he was confirmed. The Senate approved him as deputy secretary on a vote of 53 to 43, largely along party lines. While the Republican margin of control in the Senate all but ensures that he will win confirmation, he is unlikely to attract as much Democratic support as he did a year and a half ago.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has already indicated that he intends to call Bernhardt before his panel to testify about some of the department’s policy decisions, and confirmation hearings in the Senate would allow Democrats to press for answers on an array of fronts.
Bernhardt, for his part, has made an effort to reach out to Interior staff through a series of occasional department-wide emails. On Sunday, he sent an email praising their dedication, even as he blasted Obama administration officials for not upholding the department’s ethical standards.
“I believe that serving the public is one of the highest callings a person can undertake,” he wrote in an email Sunday, which was obtained by The Washington Post. “This belief has been reaffirmed in the past few weeks as many of you carried on fulfilling the Department’s mission with the knowledge that the timing of your pay was highly uncertain. This perspective is why the notion that a public servant would breach the public trust to enrich themselves so deeply offends me. Such conduct undermines everything I believe in regarding public service.”