Dana Milbank: How Trump quietly incapacitates the BLM

(Jabin Botsford | The Washington Post) Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and President Trump in the East Room at the White House on July 8.

Washington • This is how the Trump administration goes about the quiet business of incapacitating the U.S. government.

President Trump spent his summer making war on Denmark, attacking Baltimore, destabilizing the world economy, sending an imaginary hurricane to Alabama and ousting his national security adviser, among other things. But while everybody was watching those fireworks, Trump’s underlings — some far more competent than he — were toiling in the shadows to hand over public lands to the tender mercies of oil and gas companies.

The scheme, rolled out over the summer, was ostensibly to put the Bureau of Land Management closer to the lands it manages by moving personnel out of Washington. That makes sense until you consider:

1. Ninety-seven percent of the BLM’s employees already are outside of Washington, and the few hundred in the capital do things such as coordinate with Congress and other agencies; now half the congressional affairs staff, I’m told, will work out of Reno, Nevada — 2,600 miles from Capitol Hill.

2. BLM organized this with cursory analysis of impacts and costs and no significant consultation with Congress, American Indian tribes or BLM staff.

3. BLM decided to locate its new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colorado, hours from a major airport but just down the road from the hometown of Interior Secretary (and former oil and gas lobbyist) David Bernhardt, who presides over BLM.

4. The relocation was overseen by Interior assistant secretary Joseph Balash, up until days before he took employment for himself with an oil-exploration company.

5. When Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said it appeared that the proposal, which doesn't have congressional approval, was a "deliberate effort to dismantle" BLM, Balash threatened Udall, saying he would "reconsider the relocation of additional Departmental resources to your State" in retaliation.

6. Many workers being shipped out of Washington are reportedly being offered lower-level, lower-pay jobs — confirming suspicions that the real purpose is to drive experts out of government and thereby shrink the agency.

Trump's acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, said as much last month. "It's nearly impossible to fire a federal worker. I know that because a lot of them work for me, and I've tried," he told a GOP gala. "By simply saying to people, 'You know what, we're going to … move you out in the real part of the country,' and they quit — what a wonderful way to sort of streamline government."

Since Balash left to join the oil industry, the unenviable task of explaining the relocation to Congress fell to his replacement, William Perry Pendley, who joined Interior after three decades of suing the federal government to weaken protections for federal lands. Pendley, serving in an "acting" capacity, hasn't been confirmed by the Senate and perhaps couldn't be: His Twitter musings are a fevered collection of attacks on Democrats and celebrations of oil and gas drilling.

Pendley, with a Yosemite Sam mustache, informed the House Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday that "we will not dispose of or transfer in a wholesale manner our public lands."

So they'll do it piecemeal?

He volunteered that he's "in full compliance with … President Trump's heightened ethics pledge."

As if that were reassuring.

He declared that the department is offering "knowledgeable and compassionate assistance" to those relocating. (Last week, he apologized to enraged employees that BLM had been "less than transparent").

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., a Native American, asked about his past mockery of native religions.

"I was not speaking as a member of the BLM," Pendley explained.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., asked for details on the many unfilled vacancies BLM already has.

"I don't have that number," he said.

Rep. TJ Cox, D-Calif., asked for specific details of the relocation.

"I'll have to defer to congressional and legislative affairs," Pendley said.

Right. In Reno.

The Trump administration has attempted similar relocations — read: job cuts — at the Agriculture Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Personnel Management and elsewhere. But 85% of the federal workforce already is outside the Washington area. And at BLM, which has only a few hundred of its 10,000 employees in Washington, the argument for decentralization is particularly weak. Even BLM's deputy director of operations, Mike Nedd, told employees last week that "I probably would have made a different decision," E&E News reported.

But Pendley, at that same meeting, said the administration would push ahead with the plan, even if it doesn't have sufficient funds — because "we are confident that Congress will provide additional funding."

And if not? Well, Trump can declare another emergency and take more money from the Pentagon. When your goal is kneecapping the federal government, anything goes.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.