David Bernhardt, acting Interior secretary, is Trump’s pick to lead department

February 4, 2019 GMT

President Trump said Monday he’s nominated acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to serve permanently, ending his search for someone to replace ousted secretary Ryan Zinke and giving his Cabinet a dose of stability.

Mr. Bernhardt, a former energy lobbyist whose clients included oil companies, had been serving in an interim role since Mr. Zinke departed under an ethics cloud at the end of last year.

Mr. Trump said Mr. Bernhardt will be able to get off to a running start.

“David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!” the president said on Twitter.

Mr. Zinke, a former Navy SEAL and congressman, was nudged out amid a swirl of probes into high-priced travel on government planes and an alleged shady land deal in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, that involved the Zinke family and Halliburton chairman David Lesar.

The Interior Department inspector general referred the land deal scandal to the Justice Department.

The nomination will give Mr. Trump’s Cabinet a glint of stability amid a tumultuous stretch.

His attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, and defense secretary, Patrick M. Shanahan, are serving in acting roles after the departures of Jeff Sessions and James Mattis.

His chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, is also serving in an interim role.

Mr. Trump downplayed the tumult in an interview with CBS on Sunday, saying acting secretaries give him more “flexibility” and that he’s not afraid to shake things up if he’s not getting what he wants.

Mr. Bernhardt is likely to be confirmed by the Senate, where Republicans hold 53 seats, though he’ll contend with critics who say Mr. Trump’s Interior policies have favored the oil-and-gas industry at the expense of wildlife and treasured lands.

Conservation groups immediately panned Mr. Bernhardt as a “walking conflict of interest” who is too cozy with business interests and who, as a deputy, propped up Mr. Zinke’s policies.

“The secretary of the Interior should be someone who respects the mission of the department and sees the value in our public lands and waters beyond their capacity to be drilled, mined, or fracked,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said. “Bernhardt’s time as Ryan Zinke’s right-hand man in their joint efforts to help corporate polluters at the expense of the American people makes it clear that he is not that person.”

Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, jeered the nomination as a “reward for months of work cramming America’s natural heritage into a wood chipper.”

Oil and gas producers welcomed the nomination with open arms, though, saying Mr. Trump picked a westerner who knows how to balance conservation and recreation with energy development.

“Mr. Bernhardt knows the department well, and understands the integral role that the department of the Interior plays in oil and natural gas development, both onshore and offshore,” said Barry Russell, president and CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).