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Who is David Bernhardt?

By: Julia T.


Over the course of four painfully slow years, President Trump has been consistent on a few things - for the exception of environmental policy and protection of rollbacks, of course. National Geographic has managed to keep a running list of the nearly one hundred rollbacks happening before the eyes of the public. Obama- era coal rules vanishing, denial of ocean pollution responsibility, approval of offshore Arctic oil wells, removing protections on endangered species, and countless others.


Nonetheless, Washington’s politics continue to ride shotgun in this diesel spewing monster truck of environmental destruction that Trump is driving. After having cycled through several Interior secretaries, 2019 brought David Bernhart. After the resignation of previous Secretary Zinke in late 2018; due to a suspected ethical misstep regarding a land deal with an oil service in his hometown- Trump was eager to nominate Bernhardt. At this time he was the deputy chief of the Interior at the time. In Zinke’s 2 years as Secretary, he could be attributed to some of the largest rollbacks of public land protections in the nation’s history, as noted by the New York Times. In a tweet, Trump credited much of Zinke’s policy work to Barnhardt and was excited to onboard him.


Bernhart has been around since before Obama and had been working in the Department of the Interior since 2001 holding various positions. As Obama’s presidency challenged the composition of the cabinet, Bernhardt landed in the lobbying industry and spent his next seven years there.


The Department of the Interior is responsible for the management and conservation of federal land and natural resources. This includes land management and overseeing the national parks. As described on the Department of the Interior’s website, “The U.S. Department of the Interior uses sound science to manage and sustain America’s lands, water, wildlife, and energy resources . . . we manage the resources in our care to benefit Americans now and in the future”. Concerningly enough, Bernhardt’s lobbying career was spent representing the largest privately-held crude oil company in the US, multinational oil field service companies, copper mines invading on indigenous lands, and petroleum associations. There may be an obvious conflict of interest revealing itself here. During his time in the lobbying sector, Bernhardt fought for the rollback of the Endangered Species Act protections on behalf of Westlands Water District, the deregulation of national parks, and worked to cut land deals on behalf of various petroleum and oil companies.


Predictably enough, these conflicts and scandals continued much after Bernhardt’s confirmation as secretary. More than 150 entries in Bernhardt's official government calendar failed to specify whom he had met with. This became very problematic for Congressional Oversight. In an investigation published by Global Witness, Bernhardt may have even lied to Congress during his confirmation testimony that he had any ties with various lobbying groups, lying to Congress is a felony. A Washington Post investigation later revealed that the former firm’s business had quadrupled after his appointment. It was also noted that a former client of Bernhardt began paying his former firm a $10,000 per month bonus.

Since Bernhardt’s confirmation in January of 2019, he has been quietly chugging along with expected conflicts along the way. In May of 2019, Berhardt was investigated by the House oversight committee to assure that he was complying with record-keeping laws. Four months later he could be found upholding and defended Trump's rollbacks. Most recently, in May of 2020, Bernhardt was sued by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Western Watersheds. Activist groups took issue with Bernhartd’s appointment of conservative activist William Pendley to lead the National Parks when this nomination dodged the senate confirmation process. Western Values Project has also recently filed suit for his communications with former clients. Although there has not been much traction or momentum on these cases yet, exposing the missteps of our leaders can lead to their downfall. Considering the way Trump changes through his cabinet like the seasons, we may not be seeing too much of Bernhardt any longer.



Secretary Bernahrt posing next to a freshly hunted Moose.


Discussion Questions:

  • What measures and over sights should be taken by congress when appointed officials have conflicting interests with their new position?

  • Is it ethical for lobbyists to eventually hold positions in government?


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