Energy Secretary Rick Perry once called for abolishing the agency he now runs — though he forgot its name. His biggest policy initiative of the past year went down in resounding defeat. And he was photographed in a bear hug with a coal magnate seeking a special break from the White House.
But that still makes the former Texas governor a success by the standards of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, where several of his peers have been swimming against a flood of ethical and spending scandals.
Perry has avoided the lavish private jet spending that took down former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, steered clear of the first-class travel, housing and transparency controversies dragging Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, abstained from the $31,000 dining set purchase hampering Housing and Urban Development leader Ben Carson and sidestepped the questionable helicopter rides and political activities on official business that have dogged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Perry — generally not seen as a policy wonk — has even won praise from Congress for his leadership of the department that oversees upkeep of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, a network of national labs and cyber defenses for energy infrastructure.
True, Perry hasn’t totally avoided the kind of behavior that’s bedeviled other Cabinet leaders, such as adding his wife to an official delegation traveling to Italy on the taxpayers’ dime or his failed attempt to bail out Trump’s supporters in the coal industry. And he annoyed some DOE employees when posters discouraging leaks appeared in agency headquarters.
But Perry’s political allies in Congress and Texas credit the retail skills he developed in the Lone Star State, where he spent a record 14 years as governor, with helping him navigate Washington better than others appointees have.
“He has incredibly thick skin, and he’s able to trade figurative blows with someone during the day and be perfectly friendly with them the next one,” said Ray Sullivan, a longtime Perry aide and former chief of staff, one of about 10 people who spoke to POLITICO about the secretary. “Who knows what the future might hold for him, but I do know he is very honored and pleased with this job and is taking it very, very seriously.”
Even some of the oversight groups investigating ethical improprieties in Trump’s Cabinet concede that Perry has avoided giving them much ammunition.
“It is striking when it’s a story that a Cabinet member hasn’t been plagued by scandal, but good on him,” said Austin Evers, executive director of the group American Oversight. “He should feel like he’s under the microscope even if we have not yet found anything.”
Lydia Dennett, an investigator with the Project on Government Oversight, said that while “it’s difficult to know what we don’t know,” Perry has clearly avoided the ethical troubles of officials like Pruitt and Zinke.
“Given the secretary’s past experience in government, it is clear he is familiar with the expectations of public office,” Dennett said.
Others point to the Texas political veterans on Perry’s staff, his willingness to rely on career staff and the large portfolio of DOE work that must remain classified as key reasons he’s avoided negative publicity. But former House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) offered a different theory for how Perry has managed to stay out of the headlines.
“Didn’t need new furniture,” Upton laughed.
Perry stepped into his latest job facing skepticism over how he’d run the vast Energy Department, whose sprawling portfolio ranges from maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile to protecting the electric grid from cyberattacks and developing new technologies. Doubters pointed to Perry’s infamous “oops” moment during the 2012 presidential race, when he forgot DOE’s name while listing the three Cabinet departments he vowed to eliminate.
Perry’s allies don’t agree on whether DOE is his last stop in government service. Some think the 68-year-old former governor is keeping his head down in hopes of shifting into another Cabinet role should Trump win a second turn, while others think he could be keeping the door open to one final presidential bid in 2024. Others think he’ll opt for a private-sector role.
But observers have been impressed by the selection of his staff and his earnest efforts to understand the expansive network of DOE responsibilities. And they say he’s been focused in understanding the work of the agency, trekking to the nation’s national labs while vocally pushing the Trump administration’s policy of achieving U.S. “energy dominance.”
“You don’t need to be high-profile to be effective, and I think he’s proven that,” Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) told POLITICO. “He just wants to get the job done, and I think he’s doing it.”
When Perry’s name has come up big in the news recently, it was for rumors in mid-March that Trump was considering moving him from DOE to take over the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs — although POLITICO pointed out at the time that the move was unlikely. He has also emerged as one of Trump’s main emissaries to Saudi Arabia trying to persuade the kingdom to partner with the U.S. on nuclear power.
That’s not to say Perry’s tenure has been without controversy. Federal energy regulators unanimously shot down his plan in January to make electricity customers prop up economically ailing coal and nuclear power plants — a proposal that followed his interactions with Bob Murray, a coal magnate and major Trump donor who would have benefited from a number of his policies. Perry also earned bipartisan rebukes in Congress for the administration’s proposals to eliminate a breakthrough energy program known as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and slash budgets for his department’s national labs.
But unlike some of his Cabinet colleagues, Perry has taken a more conciliatory tone when disagreeing with Congress. During a Senate Energy Committee hearing in March, he vowed to make lawmakers “proud” of the programs if Congress decided against cutting them.
“If you see fit — this committee sees fit, Congress sees fit — to fund particular line items, I give you my solemn oath that it will be administered and managed as transparently and as successfully as possible,” Perry said.
Perry has been able to navigate such situations with charm, even among some lawmakers who oppose his policy stances.
“I think that Secretary Perry is an affable guy who, my guess, has been limited by the administration’s viewpoints about what needs to happen on energy and has been playing the role they want him to play,” Senate Energy ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said. “I’ll bet you as governor the bright light was shone on him and he knew that kind of scrutiny was going to happen, so he more adapted” his approach than other Cabinet members did.
Decades of political fights in Texas taught Perry to avoid some of the travel-related scandals that have tripped up fellow Cabinet members. Perry, a known fan of Southwest Airlines, quickly disclosed his non-commercial air travel in response to a congressional inquiry.
Congressional allies say he’s done a good job of listening to their advice before unveiling new policy proposals, while conducting genuine bipartisan outreach on other issues.
“It’s his personality plus Texas common sense,” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said. “He has lots of friends up here who, behind the scenes on occasion when he asks, we try to tell him the truth as we know it. And that is the mark of a good administrator and a good leader is that they do listen, and I think Secretary Perry listens really well.”
What’s clear is none of his allies are surprised Perry has taken his job seriously and embraced the latest phase of his tenure in public service.
“He could have chosen to showboat or show-horse rather than workhorse,” Bud Albright, a DOE official during the George W. Bush administration, told POLITICO. “But he chose the workhorse route.”