The Cable

Rick Perry Wants to Keep (And Run) The Energy Department

Energy Secretary-nominee Rick Perry learned what the agency actually does, and sounded a lot different than when he ran for president -- and from Trump’s own plans.

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry was excited to run the Energy Department he once wanted to close. And now that he’s learned what the agency actually does (hint: Not produce energy), he’s even sorry he campaigned for president on a pledge to eliminate it.

In his Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, Perry enjoyed a civil reception — in stark contrast to some of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet picks — and some sheepish moments. Like other nominees, he offered plenty of daylight between his own views and Trump’s more outlandish statements, raising the specter of potential clashes between the White House and the Energy Department down the road.

He appeared to support the Iran deal he once lambasted, acknowledged the threat of climate change, and, of course, apologized for once calling to wipe the energy department off the map.

Here are some highlights from his nearly four-hour hearing, seemingly half of which consisted of senators inviting Secretary Perry to visit their home-state labs and energy projects.

He no longer wants to abolish the Department of Energy. Hey, it’s a start. In 2011, during a failed presidential bid, Perry advocated getting rid of the department entirely — and even forgot the department’s name in a cringeworthy presidential debate moment.

That’s the Rick Perry of the past, though, he wants us to know. “My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking,” he said. “In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.”

He believes in climate change. Perry appeared to rebut Trump’s vocal skepticism of climate change. “I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is caused by man-made activity,” Perry said. “The question is how we address it in a thoughtful way, that doesn’t compromise economic growth, that affects the affordability of energy, or American jobs.”

Perry, like Trump’s interior secretary pick Rep. Ryan Zinke (R.-Mont.) and secretary of state pick Rex Tillerson, acknowledged climate change as a real issue but didn’t elaborate on what action the administration should take to combat it. Only Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to run the EPA, seemed to echo his boss’s extreme views on climate change during his confirmation hearing.

He vowed to protect the scientists who research climate. Trump stoked fears in the Department of Energy when in December his transition team requested the names of specific employees involved in climate change talks. Perry sharply rebuked the move, which Trump’s team later said was unauthorized. “I didn’t approve it, I don’t approve of it, I don’t need that information, I don’t want that information,” Perry said. “I’m going to protect the men and women of the scientific community from anyone who would attack them,” he added.

He no longer appears to think the Iran nuclear deal is destructive. While running for president in 2015, Perry called the Iran deal — one that outgoing Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz helped create — “one of the most destructive foreign policy deals [his] lifetime.” Trump promised to tear the deal up once in office. But before the committee, Perry softened his tone. He refused to give a full opinion until he received classified briefings on the deal, but said “we want the Iranians to live up to the deal.”

He’s a proponent of nuclear nonproliferation — unlike (maybe?) Trump. “I think nonproliferation is a good thing in a general sense,” he said during a line of questioning on the Iran deal. That is a departure from Trump’s cavalier comments on nuclear proliferation, including encouraging nuclear proliferation in Asia and a call in December to start an “arms race.” But Trump veered from that stance himself in recent weeks, particularly when it came to his newfound friends in Russia.

He says he is pushing to keep top nuclear security positions filled. Earlier this month, reports emerged that that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) could go leaderless under Trump. Perry told a “deeply concerned” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) he was pushing the issue across Trump’s desk.

It’s an important issue to Heinrich and others; The NNSA, an arm of the energy department, oversees the country’s nuclear weapon stockpile and eats up roughly half of the department’s annual $32 billion budget. Despite the high stakes issue and vagueness of Perry’s answer, Heinrich, at least, appeared mollified by the exchange.

One moment in the civil hearing got a little too friendly. Sen. Al Franken (D- Minn.) asked if Perry enjoyed meeting him in his office before the hearing.

“I hope you are as much fun on that dais as you were on your couch,” Perry replied, chuckling.

After a moment of awkward silence settled over the committee room, a look of horrified realization dawned on Perry’s face.

“May, may I rephrase that sir?” he asked sheepishly.

“Please. Please,” Franken said. “Oh my lord.”

Photo credit: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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