These Are the Industry Cronies Actually Running Trump and Zinke’s Department of the Interior

Little-known officials are remaking policy in ways that threaten environmental health for the benefit of their polluting friends.

It’s been a dizzying several days of news for those tracking the cronyism and corruption that have been persistent themes under President Trump and Secretary Zinke’s Department of the Interior.

First, the White House announced it was replacing the watchdog in charge of overseeing four ongoing investigations into Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke with a political appointee, only to flip-flop on that announcement when independent ethics experts revealed it for the baldly political move it was. Then reports surfaced that the current watchdog found that Zinke wasted $25,000 in taxpayer dollars on a vacation in Turkey and explored how to give his wife a “volunteer” position to circumvent the requirement to reimburse taxpayers. Each new day seems to take Zinke’s Interior Department from bad to worse.

But while Zinke is the face of the dangerous shift in the Department of Interior, other, lesser-known officials are remaking policy in ways that threaten the health of our national monuments and endangered species for the benefit of their polluting friends.

Ex-industry lobbyist running the show despite obvious conflicts of interest

He’s been labeled a “walking conflict of interest,” and it’s no exaggeration. David Bernhardt is Trump and Zinke’s right-hand man at the Department of the Interior, and as deputy secretary, he’s working around the clock to benefit many of the same companies and industry groups he once represented as a lobbyist.

A former top lobbyist for the oil and gas industry at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, Bernhardt has an ex-client list that reads like a who’s-who of deep-pocketed dirty polluter interests: Halliburton, Statoil, Noble Energy, and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, among several others. He used the infamous revolving door to push polluters’ agendas as a lobbyist, previously working to scrap protections for endangered species while in the Bush administration.

Today, Bernhardt is working behind the scenes — often after secret meetings with special interests — to benefit many of the same companies and industry allies who he once represented and who stand to profit from the Trump-Zinke agenda. He sees endangered species and national monuments as little more than roadblocks to energy extraction, as his recent Washington Post op-ed shows.

Bernhardt’s actions have been as bad as his words. He’s the puppet master orchestrating Zinke’s pro-extinction agenda, working to eviscerate protections that the overwhelming majority of the public supports. He’s been overseeing the sale of America’s public lands to industries bent on destroying our clean air, water, and lands for CEO paychecks. And it all benefits companies like his former clients.

It’s bad enough that Trump and Zinke are turning to industry cronies to tear apart our bedrock environmental laws — they’re also empowering some of the worst fringe elements of the right wing. One administration official in particular, recently named to a senior post at the Department of Interior, stands out: Karen Budd-Falen.

Bundyville comes to Washington

Two weeks ago, the Trump administration nominated Karen Budd-Falen for a post as deputy solicitor for Parks and Wildlife. Budd-Falen’s appointment is drawing unprecedented scrutiny to her post, and for good reason: she has a long history of ties to and sympathy for anti-government radicals unafraid to engage in armed standoffs with the federal government over land use disputes. Trump had earlier wanted her in charge of the entire Bureau of Land Management (BLM), but her corruption put a stop to that. But Trump and Zinke couldn’t resist having her calling the shots.

Budd-Falen is an unapologetic supporter of the radical Cliven Bundy and his followers, who put the public in harm’s way and took up arms to defy federal law enforcement authorities in 2014 and 2016 after decades of refusing to pay standard legally required fees, fines, and taxes for illegally grazing cattle on our federal lands. In fact, she represented Bundy in his lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1989, arguing that the only land the government, and thus the public, has the right to own are military installations and post offices under the Constitution. Budd-Falen herself admitted at the time that her arguments ignored “200 years of court precedent,” but sided with Bundy anyway.

Fast forward nearly 30 years to the time when Bundy and some of his supporters, several of them armed, approached a Bureau of Land Management official with the hopes of intimidating the official off public lands where Bundy was trespassing and illegally grazing cattle. Once again, Karen Budd-Falen came to the defense of her extremist former client. She responded by saying, “I totally get what drove [Bundy] to do what he did.” Now, Budd-Falen is set to take charge of much of the federal government’s work on endangered species and national monuments. It’s a dangerous development for anyone who cares about our public lands and environment.

Taking a stand

It’s easy to watch the actions of the Trump administration’s cronies and lose hope, but it’s more important than ever for the public to speak out and urge their elected officials to investigate conflicts of interest and corruption in Zinke’s Department of the Interior. We need to hold officials accountable for their actions — even if the administration’s so-called “watchdogs” won’t.

A senior legislative representative, Blaine works with Congress, federal agencies, and partner organizations to protect public lands and advance environmental health.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.

U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana speaks at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana speaks at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0)