Democrats want investigation into Trump administration’s reported ‘blackmail’ over health care votes

Committee ranking member describes conduct as similar to what “we’d see from the Kremlin.”

President Donald Trump meets with Republican senators, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), on health care at the White House on June 27, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
President Donald Trump meets with Republican senators, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), on health care at the White House on June 27, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, plans to request a formal investigation into whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke threatened to pull projects from Alaska in retaliation for Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) vote on Tuesday against moving forward with a debate on health care legislation.

Grijalva said Zinke’s willingness to reportedly threaten Alaska in response to the senator’s vote serves as “an alarming sign of how far the administration’s ethical standards have fallen and how irresponsible the Interior Department has become.”

“Threatening to punish your rivals as political blackmail is something we’d see from the Kremlin,” Grijalva said in a statement Thursday. “Secretary Zinke’s willingness to deliver these threats speaks volumes about his ethical standards and demonstrates that Interior’s policy positions are up for political grabs, rather than based on science or the public interest.”

Early Wednesday, President Donald Trump used Twitter to express his displeasure with Murkowski’s heath care vote. Later that day, Zinke reportedly called Murkowski and Alaska’s other senator, Dan Sullivan (R), letting them know that Murkowski’s vote had put Alaska’s future with the administration in jeopardy.

Murkowski and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) were the only two Senate Republicans who opposed a motion to proceed to open debate on the House-passed heath care bill on Tuesday. Sullivan voted in favor of the motion.


Zinke reportedly promised that the Trump administration will hold back development projects and efforts to exploit Alaska’s natural resources, including large fossil fuel deposits, on federal lands in the state, according to the Alaska Dispatch News.

Sullivan said the Interior secretary was clear that his message was in response to the no vote cast by Murkowski. “I’m not going to go into the details, but I fear that the strong economic growth, pro-energy, pro-mining, pro-jobs and personnel from Alaska who are part of those policies are going to stop,” Sullivan said, according to the Alaska Dispatch News report.

Meanwhile, Politico reported Thursday that a Freedom of Information Act request filed by conservation group the Western Values Project is seeking records of any contact Zinke made with the Alaskan senators as well as Collins and Sens. Dean Heller (R-NV), Mike Lee (R-UT), and John McCain (R-AZ).

Murkowski heads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which on Wednesday afternoon announced that it was postponing a vote on six Trump administration nominees.


According to a report by The Hill, the six nominees who would have gotten a vote Thursday by the committee are: Brenda Burman to be commissioner of reclamation at Interior; Susan Combs to be assistant secretary of the Interior for policy, management and budget; Doug Domenech to be assistant secretary of the Interior for insular affairs; Paul Dabbar to be undersecretary for science of the Department of Energy; David Jonas to be general counsel of the DOE; and Mark Wesley Menezes to be undersecretary of the DOE.

The Trump administration and Murkowski share many of the same views on energy and natural resources policy in Alaska. In May, Trump said, “The only path for energy dominance is a path through the great state of Alaska.” He signed an order encouraging more production in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and calling for an update of current assessments of oil and natural gas resources in Alaska’s North Slope.

Threatening action that would undermine its own policy objectives shows how the Trump administration is committed to demanding complete loyalty from congressional Republicans.

Since getting appointed to her Senate seat in 2002 by her father Frank Murkowski, who resigned his Senate seat to become governor of Alaska, Murkowski has fought hard for fossil fuel extraction and logging in her home state and across the country.


In 2015, Murkowski threatened to cut thousands of park ranger and natural resource management jobs across the country — including in her home state of Alaska — escalating an ongoing fight with the Obama Administration over its plans to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from fossil fuel extraction.

A bipartisan energy bill, introduced by Murkowski and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), would expedite the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure and would undermine the goals of policymakers and climate activists who believe the nation needs to move quickly away from burning fossil fuels, according to environmental groups.