During the early days of the Trump administration, lawmakers and government watchdogs complained agencies weren’t turning over Cabinet secretaries’ schedules as has been practice. Now, one department has presented those groups with the opposite problem, creating new questions about a lack of consistency and transparency.
The Interior Department has released five different versions of Secretary David Bernhardt’s schedule for the first five months of 2019.
The department released Google calendar entries, two versions of daily cards – which are synopses of the secretary’s calendar given to him as a reminder of upcoming events, according to Interior – briefing book pages and secretary’s schedules, which are released on the same section of the Interior website as press releases.
But many of these sources give conflicting information when compared side by side on any given day.
With none of the five sources apparently being the definitive record, it raises questions about what the secretary is actually using to schedule his days and why the public doesn’t have access to it.
Take January 10 of this year.
At 9:30 a.m., Bernhardt had a meeting titled “deputy secretary lapse working group.” Or did he? That information comes from his Google calendar entry, a schedule page and the daily cards for that day. So, it seems clear.
But the briefing book entry for the day says Bernhardt attended a staff meeting at that time. Is that the same meeting or a different one?
Then, according to the briefing book, he had two vaguely described entries – another staff meeting at 11 a.m. and an “external lunch off the record” at noon.
So, what do the Google calendar, daily cards and secretary’s schedule page have at that time? No mention of an 11 a.m. meeting, but an additional 11:45 a.m. meeting with Matt Pottinger and Eric Johnson (NSC) and no mention of a 12 p.m. lunch but a 12:30 p.m. meeting with Brian Jack (OPA), according to the Google calendar and daily cards. NSC stands for the National Security Council and OPA stands for Office of Political Affairs, an office in the White House. The department schedule page seems to confirm that information in a more opaque way, listing an 11:45 a.m. meeting with NSC and a 12:30 p.m. meeting with OPA.
Depending on which calendar you pick, at 2 p.m., Bernhardt either had a meeting with “Bremberg & Leggit (DPC)” according to the Google calendar, daily cards and secretary’s schedule page, or he had an “external call - TRCP,” according to the briefing book. TRCP stands for Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. A spokesperson for the group confirmed that a member of their organization had a phone call with Bernhardt on that day and time.
At 4:15 p.m., Bernhardt was either in a staff meeting, according to his Google calendar and secretary’s schedule page, or he was in an “AS/WS Operations Meeting,” according to two versions of the daily cards for that day.
Maybe those are the same, since an operations meeting would presumably be with staff. And that’s just one day.
“Like most (if not all) of us, the Secretary of the Interior has a daily schedule that is subject to constant change,” Interior Department spokeswoman Molly Block said.
“Appointments that were expected get canceled, unexpected appointments arise and plans get interrupted by events. The department seeks to ensure that the public has access to the secretary’s activities by posting online the various tools used to plan his day by different staff members,” Block said. “We are constantly working to ensure that the public has a window into the work the secretary is doing on behalf of the American people.”
Five calendars, no consensus
Not all of the calendars conflict every day. On certain days, all five versions of Bernhardt’s schedule line up. In some cases, external meetings that don’t include meeting attendees on the daily cards have meeting attendees listed in the secretary’s schedule page for the same day. Since mid-March, versions of the secretary’s schedule pages have included more names of meeting participants.
But there are too many discrepancies to know what the secretary is doing other days. On February 21, there are at least three discrepancies between the name or subject of the meeting, and another 10 instances of meetings and departure times not listed on all the calendars.
And it’s not just the entries themselves that don’t line up. The different sources of Bernhardt’s scheduling information don’t cover all five months of 2019. The department posted Google calendar entries from January to May, two versions of daily cards from January to April 16, briefing book pages from January to March and webpages with the the secretary’s schedule page from January to March and April 28 to May 24.
The Center for Western Priorities, a watchdog group that focuses on environmental issues and has been critical of the Trump administration, feels the deluge of contradictory information is not just a matter of sloppy record keeping, but rather a concerted effort to conceal the secretary’s activities from the public.
“Despite numerous requests from the public, the press, and Congress, David Bernhardt still refuses to release his actual calendar – the one that tells him not just where to go, but what his meetings are about,” Center for Western Priorities Deputy Director Aaron Weiss told CNN. “It’s not just a lack of transparency. It’s Bernhardt taking repeated steps to conceal his actions.”
Some of the entries include vague terms like “external” and “internal” meeting, which Bernhardt has been criticized for in the past, because it gives little insight into who he’s meeting with and for what purpose they’re meeting.
A CNN review found 88 entries in Bernhardt’s daily cards that use the term “external” or “intergovernmental” to describe a meeting without any further details.
“No one keeps a day planner that only says ‘internal briefing’ and ‘external meeting’ with no details. You simply couldn’t’ function,” Weiss said.
Calendar controversy continues
Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel lobbyist, previously came under scrutiny from watchdog groups and Democratic members of Congress for not releasing his full schedule publicly. When asked by the House Natural Resources Committee to provide his complete schedule earlier this year, Bernhardt said he had “not personally maintained a calendar for years,” and that he had “no intention of doing so now,” in a letter to the committee.
A week before his confirmation vote in the Senate, Interior published hundreds of pages of documents containing new details about some meetings that were left off of previous versions of Bernahrdt’s calendars.
The House Oversight Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee requested interviews with four Interior staff members to further investigate recordkeeping practices at the department in March.
Before becoming secretary, Bernhardt served as deputy secretary to former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. When Zinke resigned amid a host of ethics scandals at the end of 2018, Bernhardt stepped in to lead the agency in an acting role and was confirmed to the post in April.
When Zinke announced his resignation in December, he referred to the allegations against him as “false.”
“I love working for the President and am incredibly proud of all the good work we’ve accomplished together,” Zinke wrote on Twitter. “However, after 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations.”