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Four days on the job, Trump cabinet secretary faces new investigation

David Bernhardt was confirmed to Trump's cabinet on April 11. He found himself facing an ethics investigation on April 15.
A protester is seen during the during the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing for David Bernhardt, nominee to be Secretary of the Interior, March 28, 2019.
A protester is seen during the during the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee confirmation hearing for David Bernhardt, nominee to be Secretary of the Interior, March 28, 2019.

Last Thursday, the Senate voted largely along party lines to confirm David Bernhardt, a former corporate lobbyist for the oil industry, as the nation's new secretary of Interior. Four days later, as the New York Times reported, he became the subject of an ethics investigation.

The Interior Department's internal watchdog has opened an investigation into ethics complaints against the agency's newly installed secretary, David Bernhardt. [...]Eight senators, all Democrats, and four government ethics watchdog groups have requested that the Interior Department's inspector general open formal investigations into various aspects of Mr. Bernhardt's conduct. Among the chief complaints have been allegations, revealed by three separate New York Times investigations, that Mr. Bernhardt used his position to advance a policy pushed by his former lobbying client; that he continued working as a lobbyist after filing legal paperwork declaring that he had ceased lobbying; and that he intervened to block the release of a scientific report showing the harmful effects of a chemical pesticide on certain endangered species.

There are a handful of ways to look at a story like this one. The first is to note the incredible speed with which the Republican cabinet secretary found himself facing an ethics probe.

Bernhardt certainly isn't the first member of Donald Trump's team to find himself under investigation, but the Interior secretary may have set some kind of land-speed record: he was confirmed on April 11, only to receive word about an ethics inquiry on April 15.

The second is to ask how in the world 56 senators voted to confirm this guy. None of the controversies surrounding Bernhardt is new; each were well documented before his nomination reached the Senate floor. (While serving as former Secretary Ryan Zinke's deputy, Bernhardt had so many conflicts of interest, the Washington Post reported last year that he had to "carry a small card listing them all," because he "worked for years as a lobbyist representing many of the very businesses he now regulates.")

As we discussed last week, there was a reason a protester in a Swamp Creature mask sat behind the Republican nominee during his recent confirmation hearing.

And yet, every GOP senator, including the ostensible "moderates," voted to confirm Bernhardt anyway.

Finally, there's the fact that the president's newest cabinet secretary can take some solace in the fact that he has lots of company on Team Trump. Circling back to our earlier coverage, the ethics probe into Bernhardt comes on the heels of federal prosecutors presenting evidence to a grand jury Ryan Zinke, Bernhardt's immediate predecessor.

Around the same time that story came to light, we learned new details about Alex Acosta, Trump’s Labor secretary, who allegedly broke the law while shielding a politically connected sex trafficker.

About a year ago, NBC News published a list of Trump administration figures accused of crossing ethical and/or legal lines, and the list wasn’t at all short. Even putting aside the investigations into the president and his multifaceted operation, the list included familiar controversies involving former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, former HHS Secretary Tom Price, former regulatory adviser Carl Icahn, HUD Secretary Ben Carson, former CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.

And that wasn’t an exhaustive list. As we discussed at the time, there have been related controversies surrounding Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and former VA Secretary David Shulkin.

While we’re at it, let’s also not overlook controversies surrounding Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and former FEMA Director Brock Long. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is also facing an ethics probe -- and he hasn't even been nominated for his current post, much less confirmed.

Remember in 2016 when voters were told a vote for Hillary Clinton would be a vote for years’ worth of exhausting investigations and scandals?