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Trump falls flat with heavy-handed Alaska retaliation talk

  • Author: Dermot Cole
  • Updated: July 28
  • Published July 28

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke answers questions following a meeting with the Alaska Federation of Natives and Alaska’s congressional delegation in Anchorage on May 30. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young listen at right. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

The president and his interior secretary won't come clean but it's not hard to guess what childish threats President Donald Trump uttered about Alaska.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called our senators to threaten retribution on key Alaska issues because Sen. Lisa Murkowski did her job — voting against a slapdash secret health care bill that deserved to be defeated.

Murkowski said that Zinke "was asked to deliver a message" that Trump was unhappy.

Did Zinke deliver the message sheepishly and with an apology? Probably, unless the unhappy president was listening to the conversation.

The real question is not what Zinke said about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the King Cove road or anything else, but why didn't he have the sense to tell Trump this deal was bound to backfire?

Zinke, a Montana resident who spent two years in the House of Representatives, should know by now that Murkowski, as chairman of the resources committee and the leader of a subcommittee that handles the Interior Department budget, has some power in this relationship.

As a Washington Post reporter put it: "Only an amateur would threaten the person who has oversight over his agency! If she wants, Murkowski can make Zinke's life so unbelievably miserable. He has no idea."

I doubt she will try to make his life miserable. Murkowski is a professional and she wants to get things done for Alaska, which you can't do by responding to Trump in kind.

In the end, this is an embarrassing stunt that reflects poorly on the president and Zinke. It does no real damage to a senator the Interior Department needs on its side and it won't harm Alaska.

If there is any hint that the Trump threats against Alaska are real, Murkowski is in a perfect position to hold hearings and get Zinke to explain.

Sen. Dan Sullivan said that Zinke delivered a "troubling message" about how pro-development policies regarding Alaska will stop, but Sullivan refused to get specific. Maybe there are no details to divulge.

"I tried to push back on behalf of all Alaskans," Sullivan said.

I wonder what the late Sen. Ted Stevens would have said after being threatened by an interior secretary. I'm pretty sure it would have not been, "I tried to push back on behalf of all Alaskans."

To his credit, had Sullivan not announced the threats, no one would have known about the plan to retaliate. It would not have appeared in every major news organization on the day of the final vote because it is unlikely that Murkowski would have disclosed this nonsense.

A Washington Post columnist says Trump's approach bordered on extortion  but is in keeping with the incessant bluffing by the White House.

"If Sullivan had the nerve, he'd inform the White House that under no conditions would he submit to blackmail," Post columnist Jennifer Rubin said.

National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg, who portrays himself as an Alaska expert because he is married to former Fairbanksan Jessica Gavora, a conservative speechwriter, offered this conclusion: "Zinke's heavy-handedness will probably backfire, because standing up to threats is one of the few things that play better in Alaska than accepting porcine bribes."

Murkowski stood up to the threats from her own party on the health care fiasco. Her votes landed within the realm of reason. Sullivan's missed the mark.

Sullivan finally backed the GOP plans to end Medicaid expansion, after refusing for many months to tell the public where he stood. He signed onto the secret GOP plan, despite the abysmal process that produced it.

It turned out there was no GOP health care plan, just the lazy repetition of a campaign slogan. Chanting "repeal and replace" is no substitute for the hard work necessary to deal with the complexities of health care policy.

Trump, who would have signed anything placed in front of him, has no clue that Murkowski, along with Arizona Sen. John McCain and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, prevented the passage of a terrible bill.

Murkowski has called for public hearings, committee review, bipartisan efforts and analysis by health care experts — the only ingredients in any solution that will survive. This is a conservative response to fix what is wrong.

The New York Times, quoting "some of the people" who attended one of the private senatorial sessions at which the White House put Murkowski right next to Trump, reported that Murkowski told him: "With all due respect, Mr. President, I didn't come here to represent the Republican Party. I am representing my constituents and the state of Alaska."

She's got that right.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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