IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Why Democrats are seeking criminal charges against Trump's interior secretary

House Democrats allege David Bernhardt was involved in a pay-for-play scheme in which he solicited bribes in return for a lucrative construction permit.


On Wednesday, top Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt over allegations of bribery. 

Can you believe it? A former Trump administration official has been accused of corruption? I'm shocked.  

In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, committee Chair Raúl Grijalva of Arizona and Rep. Katie Porter of California, who leads the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, accused Bernhardt of misusing his office to award a lucrative housing permit to a Trump donor when he was the Interior Department’s deputy secretary despite warnings about doing so.

Specifically, the letter suggests Bernhardt pressured an official to grant a permit to a developer to start building in a southern Arizona region where Interior Department officials had warned Bernhardt that developments would threaten endangered species.

“Evidence strongly suggests the decision was the result of a quid pro quo between Vigneto’s developer, Michael Ingram, and senior level officials in the Trump administration, potentially including then–DOI Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt,” the lawmakers wrote.

The letter alleged a scheme in which Bernhardt told an attorney working in his department to help overturn a suspended Clean Water Act permit that prevented the Villages at Vigneto development from breaking ground in Benson, Arizona. The committee alleged Bernhardt’s department approved the project only after Ingram and other people in Arizona made “out-of-cycle donations” to groups linked to then-President Donald Trump on and around Oct. 6, 2017. 

Bernhardt called the letter “a pathetic attempt by career politicians to fabricate news," reported The Associated Press.

If the Justice Department does decide to bring charges against Bernhardt, he would be the latest in a long line of Trump officials accused of unethical — and possibly criminal — conduct.

There was Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chair charged and convicted for tax fraud. He was later pardoned by Trump.

Then there’s Steve Bannon, the former Trump campaign chief who was charged in 2020 with wire fraud conspiracy and money laundering. He, too, was pardoned by Trump, though he now faces separate charges of contempt of Congress.

Then there’s former national security adviser — and flaming conspiracy theorist — Michael Flynn, who was convicted of lying to the FBI and later pardoned by Trump, as well. 

And that’s hardly an exhaustive list. The Trump administration was a lawless institution led by an unabashed grifter. Bernhardt could very well join its shameful alumni group of criminally charged officials. If he does, unlike many of the others, he won’t be able to bank on a pardon saving him.