Heller out of the running at Interior?

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Heller 2018 campaign video screenshot

Ex-Sen. Dean Heller may be out of the running to be President Trump’s next Interior secretary.

Heller, who lost his seat in the November election to Democrat Jacky Rosen, was widely reported to be in the mix to replace former Secretary Ryan Zinke, who resigned last month while facing a barrage of ethics allegations. But sources close to the White House told Nevada Current that Heller isn’t expected to get the job.

He’s “definitely out,” according to a source familiar with the White House discussions about President Trump’s Interior nominee.

Another source close to the White House said Heller is “not high on the list of possibilities.”

Trump tweeted on Dec. 15 that he would be announcing his pick to replace Zinke the following week. But that week came and went with no official word on a nominee. For now, the department is being run by Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist who worked at Interior during the George W. Bush administration.

The post at the helm of the Interior Department has long been a coveted job for western politicians eager to guide the federal government’s management of about one-fifth of the land in the United States. It would seem a prime landing spot for Heller, who’s out of work after his November defeat.

One factor that could be working against Heller is his criticism of Trump during the 2016 presidential race. He said then that he was “100 percent against Clinton, 99 percent against Trump.” Heller shifted to embrace Trump during his 2018 re-election bid, but it wasn’t enough to win over the president, said the source close to the White House.

“Dean Heller was not on Team Trump early,” that person said.

It’s unclear why Trump delayed the announcement of an Interior nominee, or when it might occur. The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment about the nomination.

Sources close to the Interior Department say he’s likely in no rush to get a new secretary confirmed; Bernhardt is trusted within the administration and is widely viewed among Republicans as a steady hand at the helm. The ongoing government shutdown has made other issues — like personnel decisions — lower priorities for the administration.

Trump may ultimately nominate the now-acting secretary to keep the job. The president took that approach at the Environmental Protection Agency, nominating the deputy administrator Andrew Wheeler to replace scandal-ensnared Scott Pruitt.

“Bernhardt is still the lead candidate” at Interior, said the source familiar with the White House discussions.

Some sources suspect that the low-key Bernhardt wouldn’t want the high-profile assignment that will entail plenty of grilling by newly empowered House Democrats this year. But others say it’s hard to turn down a president’s request, and Bernhardt could ultimately take the job on a permanent basis.

Other candidates rumored to be top contenders for the job include former Republican Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, and Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), the former chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Former Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) have also been floated as possible contenders.

Conservatives have been lobbying for their preferred candidates since Zinke’s departure became official.

One group sent the White House a “naughty” and “nice” list last month indicating its top choices to lead Interior. That group was led by Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who led Trump’s transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

The “nice” list included Bernhardt, Labrador, Lummis and several other names. The “naughty” list included Otter and Heller, along with former Nevada Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and former Wyoming Republican Gov. Matt Mead.

Many environmental and conservation groups are likely to oppose anyone Trump taps to lead the Interior Department, but some prospects are likely to get less blowback than others.

“Certainly if the president wanted to pick a Republican with a history of working in a bipartisan fashion and truly understanding issues in the west, you could find any number of western governors, who — I don’t know if you’d find full on support from conservation groups — but you’d find those who would hold their fire if the president went with a Matt Mead or a Sandoval,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the conservation group Center for Western Priorities.

Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender is the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Newsroom, a network of state-based non-profit news outlets that includes Nevada Current.

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