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Trump is not draining the swamp with Bernhardt’s nomination. Rather, he shows he is filling it with polluters, says Jesse Coleman, senior researcher at Documented

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us once again.

So Trump, as usual, took to Twitter to tell us he’s nominating David Bernhardt to become the next Secretary of the Interior. Secretary Elizabeth Warren two years ago warned us what might happen when Trump nominated David Bernhard to be the Deputy Secretary of the Interior.

ELIZABETH WARREN: Mr. Bernhard has shown that he is unwilling to fight for the long-term conservation of our public lands and the responsible use of our public resources. By his own admission, he intends to be a big business yes man for the Trump administration’s extreme disregard for our environment and the human lives that are affected. He is another conflict-ridden climate-dismissing Trump appointee who favors profits over people. I am alarmed by his willingness to serve as the corporate rubber stamp that President Trump wants.

He became the agency’s deputy in 2017 and has led the Interior Department on an interim basis since former Secretary Ryan Zinke was embarrassed out of office, so to speak, amid a scandal regarding major ethics violations, forcing him to resign in January. Bernhard’s nomination is obviously controversial. Vicky Wyatt, the climate campaigner for Greenpeace, USA said “The ethical questions surrounding David Bernhardt and his commitment to pandering to oil, coal, and gas, make former Interior secretary Ryan Zinke look like a tree-hugging environmentalist in comparison. And Ryan’s Zinke,” she goes on to say, “was a disaster.”

Juxtapose this with Mike Sommers. Mike Sommers is President of the American Petroleum Institute and told reporters Monday that “We have always been supportive of acting Secretary Bernhardt. We supported his nomination and would support him if the president decides to nominate him as Secretary.” And he did, obviously. And as a lobbyist, he represented a number of organizations like NE Petroleum, Sempra Energy, Halliburton Energy, Targa Energy and Noble Energy, just to name a few of his clients. The Senate is sure to confirm him. So where does that leave us? Where does that leave the battleground? His becoming Secretary of Interior, what does that portend for us, for energy, environmental policy, and the future?

Joining us is Jesse Coleman, who is Senior Researcher at Documented. And Jessie, welcome to The Real News. Good to have you with us.

JESSE COLEMAN: Good to be here.

MARC STEINER: So Jesse, where does this leave us? Clearly this is going to be a battle in the Senate, the House will raise issues, the Natural Resources Committee Congressman Grijalva runs. But I think clearly, if you were a betting person, you’d bet that Bernhardt is going to be the next Secretary of the Interior. So where does that leave us, and what is the battleground?

JESSE COLEMAN: Well, I think it’s extremely likely that David Bernhardt will be the next Secretary of the Interior. You have to realize that where he was before, in his seat as the Deputy Secretary, he really had a large amount of control over the Department of the Interior, especially given who Secretary Zinke was, the previous Secretary. Secretary Zinke was the guy that would go and ride around on a horse around DC. But David Bernhardt is the guy who has been a lobbyist for fifteen years for oil and gas companies. He knows the Endangered Species Act inside it and out, and he knows exactly how to roll back regulations in a way that are now benefiting his former clients. So in a sense, there’s not going to be much of a change in direction at the Department of the Interior because Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt had so much power. He’s just going to now be in the hot seat, so to speak, where he’ll come in front of the Senate, he’ll come in front of the House, and have to answer questions.

MARC STEINER: I mean, what you just said is really important here, because Bernhardt, from what I’ve been reading about him, was really the nuts and bolts guy in the Interior. He’s the one who made many of the decisions. I mean, he despises the Endangered Species Act and many other things, and has opened up a wide range of land to exploration in oil and gas and more. So this, in some ways, some people would argue is probably more dangerous than Zinke himself.

JESSE COLEMAN: I actually think that’s correct. As you said, David Bernhardt knows exactly what to do, and he’s done that. A lot of the most impactful changes that we’ve seen over the last two years in the Trump administration at the Department of the Interior are things that David Bernhardt had his hands all over. Secretary Zinke didn’t have a large amount of background or knowledge or interest, really, in as you said, the nuts and bolts. This is where David Bernhardt excels. His former clients are now getting exactly what they wanted from previous administrations. They’re getting that right now and I think that’s probably going to continue.

MARC STEINER: I mean, one of the things it made me think of as you were talking was I remember at the very beginning, as Trump is running for president, he kept talking about “draining the swamp.” But the swamp is rising, and it seems that the swamp is actually engulfing almost all of the cabinet areas, as well as DC itself, and nobody seems to be focusing on the contradiction here.

JESSE COLEMAN: Well, look. David Bernhardt is now in one of the most powerful positions any lobbyist has ever been in. He spent his entire career working to influence the Department of the Interior in certain ways, and now he’s going to, probably, most likely run the entire department.

MARC STEINER: So let’s look at this photo. There’s a photo we have here of Bernhardt walking with former Vice President Cheney. Talk a bit about what this photograph is saying to us.

JESSE COLEMAN: So that’s a photo from 2014. It was a photo taken at a gala that was hosted by probably the most powerful offshore oil and gas lobbying group in Washington, DC, a group called the National Oceans Industry Alliance. And you see, in that picture, glasses clinking, people smiling. The people that are smiling in that photo are one of the lead lobbyists for the American Petroleum Institute, a very powerful lobbying organization for offshore and onshore oil, and Vice President Dick Cheney, and then off to the side, David Bernhardt. This kind of shows who he has been, who he was before he was appointed to be the Deputy Secretary to the Department of the Interior in 2017. He hobnobbed with the very most powerful oil and gas lobbyists and executives in the country.

MARC STEINER: So I’m curious. If you were sitting in the Senate, or sitting next to Senators who might want to question Bernhardt, where would you take it? What is it that the people of America, the United States, need to know, and what kind of questions need to be asked of this man as he sits for confirmation?

JESSE COLEMAN: When David Bernhardt was up for confirmation the first time, for the Deputy Secretary position, his list of recusals, i.e. people and organizations that he couldn’t talk to because he represented them as either a lobbyist or a lawyer, was enormous. He actually, as a Deputy Secretary, had to carry around a physical card that listed out all of the people that he was by law forbidden to talk to or to have business with. That, to me, is very interesting and pretty unprecedented from my experience. And I think that’s exactly what people need to start asking, is did he abide by these ethics pledges?

MARC STEINER: Do we know?

JESSE COLEMAN: Well, we know for a fact that the calendar that he has posted in response to FOIA requests filed by Documented and other groups is incorrect. We proved that, for instance, he’ll say that he’s in a meeting on energy issues, what he doesn’t say is that meeting is with the head of the American Petroleum Institute, this incredibly powerful lobbying body. So it’s incomplete. And it’s so incomplete that we can’t say that he’s followed, to the letter, these ethics pledges that he’s made. And the ethics pledge is so long and contains so many people, and so much has happened at the Department of the Interior in that time that benefits these exact same people, that it’s really questionable that you know one of the most powerful people in the department had nothing to do with it. So I think that’s exactly where I would recommend Senators and others to aim their questions. Is he actually following the promises that he made not to benefit his former clients?

MARC STEINER: So I’m curious. We go back to what we played in the beginning when we talked about Elizabeth Warren questioning him. He didn’t really answer the question about what compensation he got. Do we know anything about that? Do we know, did he get a ton of money as he walked out of this, from the lobbying firm that represents all these major mining and coal and oil industries?

JESSE COLEMAN: The lobbying firm that he worked for is called Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck. They’re sometimes referred to as the 51st Senator in Washington, DC.

MARC STEINER: That used to be, back in the day when people said 51st Senator, they were talking about Clarence Mitchell, who represented the NAACP. Now we’re talking about the 51st Senator being somebody representing Petroleum.

JESSE COLEMAN: That’s correct. And if you look at just pure dollars and cents, they’re one of the richest, largest lobbying forces in Washington, DC. So he was making out like a bandit when he left the Department of the Interior in 2001. When he left the department and he joined this lobbying group, he immediately started working for the oil and gas industry, trying to dismantle the Endangered Species Law. That was his forte, that what he staked his claim on. And he did really well. He was considered by the oil and gas industry to be the lead person doing this, and I imagine that comes with a pretty solid paycheck.

MARC STEINER: So there’s another photo here that is of the perhaps incoming Secretary coming out of Trump Tower. Other than many other people going in and out of that tower, in and out of that hotel, what is that telling us?

JESSE COLEMAN: Well, David Bernhardt, as Deputy Secretary, he had just finished addressing the National Mining Association, which is one of the most powerful mining lobbying groups in Washington. Members of the National Mining Association include many different people that he is recused from speaking to, i.e. because of the recusal promises that he made to the Senate, he’s not supposed to interact with his former clients that are part of that group. What was going on there at the Trump Tower was the annual meeting of the National Mining Association. And David Bernhardt spoke with them, he gave a speech. You can actually see from the notes on his pad from that picture that he wrote down the number of a lobbyist for a mining firm. So it just kind of goes to show you that even as Deputy Secretary, he kept up these old allegiances and alliances.

MARC STEINER: So how does he get away with that? I mean, how is that not stopped, how is that not exposed?

JESSE COLEMAN: Well, it is exposed. But the truth of the matter is that ethics and recusal pledges are very complicated, and they were weakened by the Trump administration. Actually, David Bernhardt, when he was initially confirmed by the Senate in 2017, said, “Under President Obama’s ethics laws, I would not be allowed to be in this position.” I think that’s really telling. The rules have been weakened to a point where an oil and gas lobbyist, lifetime lobbyist, is now overseeing the very people that paid him just a couple of years ago, and may yet pay him again when he’s done with his service here.

MARC STEINER: So this is swamp drainers at work, right? The contradictions abound. So I’m curious what you think as an activist and researcher. So the sense is fairly certain that he will become Secretary of the Interior unless something amazing happens and people do not back him on the Republican side, which I clearly doubt. And we’ll see some of the Democrats do or don’t do. But if he’s Secretary, then what do people on the outside do? What do people on the inside do in terms of elected officials who could actually question him, push things inside the Capitol, but what do people do on the outside the Capitol, given all the things they’ve already done, which is pulling back on regulations and making it really dangerous for the future? So what are the kinds of tactics you see that can be used after he becomes Secretary?

JESSE COLEMAN: Well, as you said, the best way to fight this culture of corruption that’s developing in the Department of the Interior is sunlight. The Department of the Interior has a terrible track record under David Bernhardt of answering really basic Freedom of Information Act requests on things like where David Bernhardt has been and who he’s been talking to. That has to change. And perhaps with the change in the leadership in the House, there might be more oversight that would allow us to actually answer some of these very difficult questions. And I think that’s really important. And that’s where I would channel my energies.

MARC STEINER: Well, Jesse Coleman, this has been a really interesting discussion. And I hope that as we continue this “Bernhardt Interior Watch,” at least for the next two years, that we see what’s going on and we come back to you and we kind of examine what is happening so we keep the public abreast of all this. Jesse, thanks for your work and thanks so much for joining us here today at The Real News.


MARC STEINER: It’s my pleasure. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us. Take care.

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Jesse Coleman

Jesse Coleman is a research specialist with Greenpeace's investigation team. His focus is the oil and gas industry, campaign finance, and climate change. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, MSNBC, and the Washington Post.