Interior design

Secretarial candidates angle for job

The vast expanse of federally managed public land in Nevada makes the U.S. Interior Department important to the state.

The vast expanse of federally managed public land in Nevada makes the U.S. Interior Department important to the state.


U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke resigned under a cloud on Dec. 15, and outgoing U.S. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada is a candidate to replace him.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, scheduled to become Nevada’s senior senator when Heller leaves office, gave her blessing to Heller taking over at Interior, and he won support from half a dozen of his fellow Republican senators.

The importance of the Interior Department in Nevada can be seen in the names of some of the agencies it contains: Office of Environmental Policy and Compliance, Fish and Wildlife Service, United States Geological Survey, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Indian Education, Office of Indian Gaming, National Indian Gaming Commission, National Invasive Species Council, Office of Natural Resources Revenue, Bureau of Reclamation, Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, Office of Surface Mining, Office of Wildland Fire.

Like the Nevada Department of Wildlife, which was once a hunting and fishing agency but became an environmental agency in the 1970s, Interior’s role has changed and the importance of the secretary’s geography has been reduced and his or her policy positions elevated. Westerners themselves are now divided on public lands and environmental issues, and Heller is out of step both with his own state and with Trump’s positions on public lands. Surveys have indicated that most Nevadans supportthe federal government managing public lands and oppose transferring public lands to the states or private ownership. Heller has been harshly critical of the creation of national monuments, aligned himself with Cliven Bundy, and tried to hold down the size of wilderness areas. Still, it may be difficult for Trump to find a Republican who agrees with him on Interior issues.

As a presidential candidate, Trump opposed transfers of public lands to the states or private interests, at odds with Heller’s stance. But cabinet members adapt their positions to those of the president. And Trump’s performance in office has not been all that congenial to public land supporters, anyway.

Given the substantial amount of public land in Nevada—highest percentage of any state—and other Western states, Western politicians have long considered Interior “their” cabinet post, and the secretary has normally been a Westerner. When President Nixon appointed Maryland U.S. Rep. Rogers Morton to the post in 1971, it dismayed Westerners, including Nevada leaders. Zinke is a Montanan.

Zinke’s resignation letter was not released—the resignation was announced in a Donald Trump tweet—but the Associated Press obtained a copy of it and reported it said “vicious and politically motivated attacks … created an unfortunate distraction” for him.

The Missoulian in Zinke’s home state of Montana noted that Zinke has a history of viciousness of his own, quoting as an example his attack (posted on an official Interior Department Twitter account) on Arizona U.S. House member Raúl Grijalva: “It’s hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle.”

Zinke was forced out at Interior because of ethics charges and after a scorching report by the Union of Concerned Scientists said that the cabinet department has become a center of science suppression, harassing of staffers, climate denialism, and disdain for law. Investigations have been launched during his tenure, and more are likely to come. He will depart the job on Jan. 2, the day before the new Congress convenes. When Democrats in the U.S. House gain investigative oversight over the Interior Department, House investigations into Zinke’s behavior are expected.

“Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure, and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation,” Trump’s Tweet read in part.

Trump said he would appoint a replacement last week and did not. At press time, no name was offered. The energy/environment news site E&E reported that Trump “has repeatedly missed similar self-imposed staffing deadlines.” Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt will serve as acting secretary.

It was not surprising Trump did not act on the nomination. With findings of the New York attorney general of illegality in the Trump Foundation (its shutdown was announced), a withdrawal by Trump of his demand for funding for his proposed wall followed a day later by reassertion of the demand, an announcement that Trump was ordering withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, the protest resignation of Pentagon chief James Mattis, and Trump’s announcement of a reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Trump may have had other things on his mind.

Heller comeback?

Asked by the Las Vegas Review-Journal before Zinke’s resignation whether he would be interested in the post if Zinke departed, Heller said, “I don’t have an answer for that question.”

Also mentioned for the job, though less frequently, is Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who, like Heller, was defeated in the election. “You know, I think it’s important that I let the process go on, and I don’t have any comment right now,” Laxalt said.

So many people were interested in the Interior post that Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, made Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers the focus of its coverage because she was one likely candidate—Trump considered her for the job in his first cabinet—who said she did NOT want to be considered.

Reducing the size of national monuments—opposed by Nevadans 70 to 22 percent in a Center for Western Priorities survey in July—was a pet project of Heller’s, and it would likely generate opposition to his nomination by environmental organizations. An effort by Trump—supported by Heller—to reduce the size of monuments with executive orders is under court challenge by state governments and environmental organizations.

Two political publications referenced other liabilities they suggest Heller carries.

Politico said “sentiment at 1600 Pennsylvania seems to be cooling on” Heller, but the website cited Heller’s “caus[ing] turbulence over the Obamacare repeal effort” as the reason. Heller made his peace with Trump after the repeal effort, with Trump traveling to Nevada to campaign for him, making Heller beholden to the billionaire. Whether Politico was reporting stale information or the volatile Trump has returned to his earlier feelings about Heller in the wake of his reelection defeat is anyone’s guess.

The Hill, another Capitol Hill newspaper, also referenced the earlier Heller/Trump relationship but included the later warmth: “But Heller may lack a key qualification Trump has sought in his Cabinet members: loyalty to him. During the 2016 presidential race, Heller made disparaging remarks about Trump, saying he was ’vehemently opposed’ to the real estate mogul. But since Trump took office, the two have grown more friendly. Both Trump and his elder daughter—White House adviser Ivanka Trump—campaigned for Heller.”

For the scandal-plagued Trump administration, Heller brings his own baggage.

Heller functioned as a paid lobbyist for MGM Resorts International, pressuring federal officials to block a Connecticut tribal casino that would compete with an MGM casino just across the border in Massachusetts, Politico reported on Feb. 2 this year. Between 2013 and 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, MGM gave Heller $80,550.

One complicating factor to an appointment is that the #MeToo movement may be turning its attention to the Interior Department with last week’s lawsuit filed by Independence National Historical Park Chief Ranger Michelle Schonzeit against Zinke and Bernhardt, charging the Interior Department “has a large sexual harassment and sexual discrimination problem.”