WASHINGTON (CN) – Senate Democrats on Wednesday blasted President Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Justice Department’s environmental arm, calling out his past statements skeptical of climate change science and his unwillingness to directly answer their questions on the issue.
Jeffrey Clark, who is nominated to be assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, was the lone spot of contention at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on four of Trump’s nominees on Wednesday. Two of the other nominees were for seats on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia while a third has been chosen for another senior position at the Justice Department.
While the other nominees avoided many hard questions from the committee, Democrats sunk into Clark’s statement at a 2014 panel discussion calling science on climate change contestable and questioned whether his work in private practice representing corporations who took on environmental regulations would conflict with his new job.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was the first lawmaker to bring up Clark’s statements, as well as an article he penned criticizing the Obama EPA’s finding that greenhouse gasses are a threat to public health and safety.
Feinstein asked Clark if he stood by his contention that climate change science is contestable and Clark said he would because people can and have brought legal challenges to agency action based on the findings.
“I think that I stand by it because there are clearly scientists and private entities who disagree with federal regulation in that area that as a positive prediction they would contest those issues and several bodies have,” Clark told Feinstein at the hearing.
Feinstein in turn offered to send him an issue of National Geographic detailing how an ice shelf the size of Delaware is soon expected to break off from Antarctica. She then asked Clark if he believed greenhouse gasses are a public health threat, which Clark did not directly answer, instead saying his personal views are not “relevant” because he would simply be applying existing law.
Feinstein prickled when he would not directly answer her question.
“I think they’re very relevant,” Feinstein said. “You’re going to represent us on the environment. I’d like to know what you believe about greenhouse gas.”
Democrats also raised questions about Clark’s representation of corporations during his time in private practice at the Washington, DC firm Kirkland & Ellis. Clark defended himself by saying he was simply being a “zealous advocate” for his clients and that he would do the same for the government when it decided to take action on polluters.
“Lawyers become familiar with how to set aside their own personal beliefs and anything they did for past clients and focus on their current clients and if I were fortunate enough to be confirmed my client would be the United States and its agencies,” Clark said.
Clark also told senators he would recuse himself if Justice Department ethics experts recommended it when one of his former clients became a target of the Justice Department.
But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., told Clark he was skeptical he would be able to separate himself from his previous work, saying he went beyond simply representing his clients and instead had become a “political advocate” by writing articles and newsletters on the subject.
“My concern is that you have been the operative of these powerful interests for so long that your entry into the Department of Justice is now a capture of that department by these interests, that you will in fact be loyal to these interests rather than to popular government when you are in that position,” Whitehouse said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs the committee, defended Clark from Democrats’ complaints that he would not answer their questions, saying Clark’s personal opinions on climate science should not be relevant to whether he can effectively apply law at the department.
“I think it needs to be pointed out that a nominee’s policy views, if they’re going to do their job, are not relevant for the simple reason that these lawyers are responsible for defending the positions of their government client just like they would a private client and they have to enforce the laws passed by the Congress,” Grassley said.