The incoming Democratic majority in the House plans to scrutinize President Trump and his underlings on splashy subjects such as the president’s tax returns and alleged payments by Trump’s former lawyer to women who said they had affairs with him.
The more mundane work of Trump's environmental deputies, however, will not be spared from scrutiny. Topping that list is likely Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who is likely to lead the House Natural Resources Committee, told me and Juliet Eilperin that he wants Zinke to testify before the panel about discussions surrounding a deal in Whitefish, Mont., between the Zinkes’ family foundation and Halliburton chairman David Lesar along with other developers. Democrats asked Interior’s acting inspector general to launch a probe of the matter in late June after Politico first reported on the deal. The watchdog office last month referred the matter to the Justice Department.
In addition, Grijalva said he wants to know more about an incident last month in which Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced one of his top appointees would become Interior’s acting inspector general. Days later, Interior officials called Carson’s statement “100 percent false” and said they would not hire HUD official Suzanne Israel Tufts.
“The coincidence of the timing, I would question,” Grijalva said, noting that Carson’s statement came shortly after Interior acting inspector general Mary Kendall referred allegations concerning Zinke to Justice.
Trump said last week he was “looking at” the allegations against Zinke but that overall he was “very happy with most of my Cabinet.” Zinke has denied the allegations as “vicious attacks.”
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), slated to head the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told us he wanted to know more about the work of Nancy Beck, formerly an executive at the lobbying outfit American Chemistry Council, at the EPA.
Even the tenure of Scott Pruitt, Trump’s first EPA administrator who resigned in July amid ethics investigations, may again be scrutinized.
“My concern with the EPA is: How was Mr. Pruitt able to get away with all he got away with and remain there?” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who is set to take over the gavel of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told The Post's Paul Schwartzman.
But the chairs-in-waiting cautioned that they want to use their time with the gavel to hammer to do substantive work.
“My priority is policy,” Pallone said.
Pallone wants to determine whether the Trump administration is following legally mandated requirements to review potentially dangerous chemicals and issue energy-efficiency standards.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), likely the next chairwoman of the House Science Committee, told The Post's Ben Guarino she aims to review a proposal to ban the use of certain studies in rulemaking that rely on confidential health information.
And Grijalva said he was interested in conducting hearings on a proposed reorganization plan of Interior, which he worries may break up some “pretty well-functioning” offices.
“It's a long list that has been dormant,” Grijalva said.
Democrats will have to balance their impulse to investigate Trump’s environmental deputies with their desire to try to work with the president on a long-promised infrastructure bill.
Pallone expressed interest in working with the White House to improve drinking-water systems, while Grijalva said he wants to finish a plan kicked off by congressional Republicans to use federal oil and gas revenue to fix leaky pipes and craggy roads in national parks.
“This is an area where we can work with the president,” Pallone said.
But at a news conference this week, Trump threatened to take a “warlike posture” if Democrats investigated him and his team.
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— Senate Democrats pile on Trump's energy panel pick: Bernard McNamee, who Trump nominated to serve on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, testified in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Thursday. Democrats slammed the political appointee at the Energy Department for supporting an unsuccessful plan to subsidize coal and nuclear plants that, according to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), was "so flawed, every member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rejected it."
"I've been chairman of this committee and I haven't really seen anything quite like that," he added.
McNamee responded by insisting he would be an "independent arbiter" who "won't be influenced by politics."
— Park Service pick grilled on protest fees: The same committee also heard testimony Thursday from David Vela, who the president nominated to run the National Park Service. When asked about proposals to charge demonstrators for related costs and limit where protesters can rally near sites like the White House, Vela demurred and said he needed to study the issue more before making a decision, The Post's Marissa J. Lang reports.
Vela's testimony was slightly overshadowed by the resignation of Marcy Rockman, who led the Park Service's climate-change adaptation program.
On Thursday, Rockman published her resignation letter on Twitter and explained that she could no longer work in the Trump administration due to "pressures from the NPS that required me to spend ever more time & energy fighting for the right to exist & perform basic tasks":
Status change: for the past 7 years, I served as the US National Park Service’s Climate Change Adaptation Coordinator for Cultural Resources. On Nov. 2, 2018 I resigned. Yesterday was my last day as a federal employee. https://t.co/5262Phw6Z0— Marcy Rockman (@marcyrockman) November 15, 2018
More on how climate change is changing national parks: As it happens, the New York Times published a lengthy and engaging piece Thursday on how Yellowstone, the nation's first national park, "will quite likely see increased fire, less forest, expanding grasslands, shallower, warmer waterways, and more invasive plants" over the next few decades.
— California is burning: A week after the Camp Fire first sparked in Northern California, officials are still scouring for remains in a region wrecked by the state’s deadliest wildfire. The death toll has continued to rise. At least 63 people have died in the fire, The Post’s Tim Craig reports, and the number of people unaccounted for has increased dramatically to 631. “With this hilltop community still smoldering, California authorities are leaning on volunteers… for what is being called the largest body-recovery mission in state history, and one of the largest in the United States since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”
— Go West, old man: The president is planning to go to California this weekend to survey the site of the deadly fires and meet with fire-stricken residents, the White House announced. It will be just his second visit to the state since taking office, The Post’s Felicia Sonmez reports. The trip will also come just a week after he blamed the fires on the state’s poor forest management.
— Massive air quality problem: The smoke is so thick that it is blocking the sun and dropping temperatures as much as 10 degrees, Bloomberg News reports. The smoke “prevents the sunlight from reaching the surface,” National Weather Service meteorologist Hannah Chandler-Cooley told the outlet. “It prevents surface heating.” The report added: “Poor air quality will likely linger through next week before a weather pattern shifts, potentially blowing the smoke to the east."
— Eyes on Pacific Gas & Electric: California’s utility regulator said it was expanding the investigation into PG&E’s safety practices “to explore the way the company is managed and run, including whether it should be broken up,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Michael Picker, the president of the California Public Utilities Commission told the Journal he was concerned about how the state’s largest utility’s handles safety procedures, including with transmission lines that have sparked several fires. “I will open a new phase examining the corporate governance, structure, and operation of PG&E, including in light of the recent wildfires,” Picker said in a statement.
Meanwhile: “After suffering their worst single-day loss since 2001, shares of PG&E Corp. rallied as much as 44 percent in extended trading Thursday after a California Public Utilities Commission official told investors on a conference call that the agency doesn’t want PG&E to go into bankruptcy,” Bloomberg News reports.
- The American Council on Renewable Energy, Solar Energy Industries Association and Energy Innovation hold an event on the outlook for clean energy following the 2018 midterms.
- Brookings Institution holds an event on “The new dynamics of global energy and climate” on Nov. 19.
— "I’ve always wanted to see one": For 48-year-old videographer Steve Hathaway, seeing a 26-foot-long pyrosome ("a colony of tiny sea animals that link together into a free-floating mass") 30 miles off the coast of New Zealand "put an end to a search that lasted more than a decade," The Post's Michael Brice-Saddler reports.