There was much sputtering online last night over this story but it reads like mostly standard White House muscling of a wayward senator to me. If you want the president to care about your pet issues and/or make sure that bridge to nowhere in your home state gets built, you need to play ball with him. That’s basic hardball politics. To the extent the media and Trump’s critics are oohing and ahhing over it, it feels like they’re trying to shoehorn it into the broader “this is not normal” anti-Trump critique. There are lots of things about Trump’s presidency that are abnormal, such as dogging his loyal Attorney General in public day after day. But payback for a senator who just tried to screw him on a huge health-care vote ain’t one of ’em.
Trying to screw the other senator from her home state as payback for her vote may be a little unusual, though.
Early Wednesday, Trump took to Twitter to express displeasure with Murkowski’s vote. By that afternoon, each of Alaska’s two Republican senators had received a phone call from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke letting them know the vote had put Alaska’s future with the administration in jeopardy…
“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,” [Sen. Dan] Sullivan said…
Efforts and issues on the line include nominations of Alaskans to Interior posts, an effort to build a road out of King Cove through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and future opportunities to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and expand drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, among other regulatory issues that are a priority for Murkowski and Sullivan.
Does the White House usually ask a cabinet member to do the honors in threatening a senator? That feels like a task better suited to a political advisor such as the chief of staff or one of his deputies. Steve Bannon would probably relish leaving a rhetorical horse’s head in an opponent’s bed, but instead it fell to Zinke. Some of Trump’s opponents were … colorful in how they described his role in this:
“Ryan Zinke is revealing himself as Trump’s hitman,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based public lands and energy watchdog group. “He’s now threatening to hold public lands and energy policy hostage over a health care bill. This is the U.S. government, not the Corleone family.”
Zinke’s reported threats to Alaska senators to punish their state over health care votes is “political blackmail” and “something we’d see from the Kremlin,” says Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.
“Running a department of the federal government means you serve the American people as a protector of their rights and freedoms,” Grijalva said in a statement. “It doesn’t mean you serve the president as a bag man for his political vendettas.”
His job’s supposed to be running the Department of the Interior, not twisting arms for the president on health care. What makes Zinke an especially odd choice to go after Murkowski, though, is that she has lots of leverage over Zinke’s department. She’s the chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which covers “public lands and their renewable resources,” “territories and insular possessions; and water resources.” She’s also a member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, where she serves as chairman of the subcommittee on, er … the Department of the Interior. Yes, really — Lisa Murkowski is effectively in charge of Ryan Zinke’s funding. How scared of him do you suppose she is? A clue:
DELAYED: Hearing to confirm a series of nominees to Zinke's Interior. Murkowski also controls Interior $$ via approps subcom chair
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) July 27, 2017
Murkowski’s also an odd target for strong-arming in that not only is she not up for reelection again until 2022, she’s the one member of the Senate who’s proved she’s capable of winning a race without the GOP behind her. She won her seat in 2010, remember, as a write-in candidate after losing the Republican primary to Joe Miller. Trump and Zinke can make her life difficult until then but probably not as difficult as she can make theirs.
The reason this is getting attention today isn’t just the “this is not normal” angle, I think, but also the fact that there’s so. much. conflict. inside the Trump administration every day that each new battle, even if it involves more or less routine political hardball, feels newsworthy. As Mary Katharine Ham said, “everything’s a fight and every fight is public.” Zinke tried to keep this one non-public, but Trump probably guaranteed that it would leak when he went after Murkowski by name on Twitter yesterday. Someday he’ll realize he has more to lose by trying to embarrass Republicans in Congress than he has to gain, but it won’t be this week.