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Trump taps acting interior secretary to replace Zinke

Posted at 6:04 PM, Feb 04, 2019

President Donald Trump announced he would nominate acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to replace Ryan Zinke, who left the administration late last year.

"I am pleased to announce that David Bernhardt, Acting Secretary of the Interior, will be nominated as Secretary of the Interior. David has done a fantastic job from the day he arrived, and we look forward to having his nomination officially confirmed!" Trump tweeted Monday.

Bernhardt thanked the President in response to the tweet, calling the nomination "a humbling privilege."

Trump's choice to have Bernhardt, a former energy lobbyist, lead the Interior Department on a permanent basis would set the stage for a potentially contentious confirmation process.

The Senate confirmed Bernhardt as deputy secretary of the department on a vote of 53-43 in 2017, despite concern from environmental groups about placing the former industry figure in a prominent role overseeing public lands.

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican, welcomed the nomination, saying in a statement: "As a native Coloradan from the Western Slope, David knows how important public lands are to our state and has a keen understanding of the issues Coloradans face every day."

Bernhardt has led the Interior Department on an acting basis since Zinke left the administration. The department has a dual mission of developing natural resources, such as oil and gas, and protecting them for future generations.

Last year, House Democrats raised concerns about Bernhardt's former clients, and Bernhardt said in a statement at the time that he had committed to avoiding conflicts of interest.

"I take my ethics agreement seriously," his statement said.

Just moments after Trump announced his intent to nominate Bernhardt as the official head of the department, the environmental group Friends of the Earth released a statement calling for the Senate to reject the nomination.

"Rather than give Bernhardt a promotion, Congress should be working on exposing his numerous conflicts of interest and ethics violations, as a fossil fuel lobbyist and now as a government official," read a statement from Nicole Ghio, senior fossil fuels program manager for Friends of the Earth.

Trump had announced in December that Zinke would leave the administration, a move that came as several ethics investigations into Zinke's leadership of the department were underway.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who's now chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Interior Department, said after the December announcement that investigations would continue despite Zinke's exit.

According to his biography on the Interior Department website, Bernhardt "is an avid hunter and angler," and held several positions in the department during the George W. Bush administration, including as its solicitor.

Bernhardt was a member of Trump's transition team, and as deputy secretary since his confirmation in 2017, he has played a key role in consequential decisions, as CNN noted previously.