WASHINGTON — Energy Secretary Rick Perry has remained largely out of the spotlight through most of President Donald Trump’s term, quietly negotiating energy policy abroad while other Cabinet members found themselves on the wrong side of the president’s Twitter feed.
But now, in what is believed to be the tail end of his tenure at the Energy Department, the former Texas governor is facing deeper scrutiny for his role in Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into investigating former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
Trump told Republican lawmakers Friday that it was Perry who asked him to call Zelenskiy in July — saying, “I didn’t even want to make the call. The only reason I made the call was because Rick asked me to. Something about an LNG (liquefied natural gas) plant” — according to a report by Axios, citing anonymous sources.
That phone call was the subject of a whistleblower complaint that was made public last week and accused the president of asking a foreign government to aid his re-election prospects. The complaint also disclosed that Trump sent Perry to Zelenskiy’s inauguration in place of Vice President Mike Pence as a signal the administration was waiting to see how the new Ukrainian president “chose to act” on the Biden inquiry.
“Clearly Trump’s trying to distract or distance himself from the call,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “If Perry told him to make the call, it wasn’t part of a broader plan to get the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens, it was simply a request from Perry.”
On HoustonChronicle.com: Trump’s hard sell of American LNG
Perry has denied any wrongdoing. During a visit to Lithuania to meet with Polish and Ukrainian energy officials Monday, Perry seemingly ignored the brewing storm in Washington, tweeting about Ukraine’s prospects as a hub for U.S. LNG, much of it shipped from the Gulf Coast, to be distributed across Eastern Europe.
“These energy infrastructure projects will facilitate Baltic integration efforts into EU energy markets,” he said, “and diminish their dependence on Russia for energy supplies.”
Perry has long worked to expand the market for U.S. LNG abroad — touting it as “freedom gas” during a trip to Brussels earlier this year. Europe, which has limited natural gas resources and relies on Russian pipelines, is viewed as not only a lucrative market for LNG but also an important one geopolitically.
In an interview last month, Perry described his efforts to get European officials together with American LNG executives and the hope of getting a gas pipeline built from Poland’s LNG import terminal into neighboring Ukraine.
“A U.S. pipeline company could come in and make a deal,” he said. “Those are the kind of things we bring to the table.”
Rep. Randy Weber, R-Beaumont, who has a number of LNG export terminals in his district, defended Perry’s efforts on Ukraine as an energy secretary doing his job.
“As Secretary of Energy, Perry is continuing to be the best salesman for America energy,” he said in an email. “It makes complete sense that Sec. Perry would ask President Trump to discuss additional ways in which we can open markets and help diversify Ukraine’s energy sources. That’s his job and he’s doing it very well.”
But as the scandal around Trump grows, so too are inquiries into the administration’s work in Ukraine. The Associated Press reported Saturday that businesspeople with ties to Trump and his attorney Rudy Giuliani attempted to oust the CEO of Ukraine’s state-owned gas utility Naftogaz last year in hopes of steering contracts to companies controlled by Trump allies.
Their alleged scheme failed. But the AP reported that following Zelenskiy’s election in December, Perry told Ukrainian officials that he wanted the entire supervisory board of Naftogaz replaced, including Amos Hochstein, the former assistant secretary of state for energy resources during the Obama administration. Last week, House Democrats subpoenaed documents from Giuliani related to Perry’s activities in Ukraine.
Perry’s office denied he had tried to meddle in Naftogaz, saying the Ukrainian government had asked the energy secretary for names of some experts to “speak with while they work to reform their energy sector.” The names Perry suggested included Michael Bleyzer, a Ukrainian-born businessman with an investment firm in Houston and contributor to Perry’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, Robert Bensh, a Houston-based oil executive with Pelicourt LLC, Daniel Yergin, a prominent historian of the oil industry and vice chairman of the consulting firm IHS Markit, and Carlos Pascual, a top State Department official during the Obama administration and now with IHS Markit, said Shaylyn Hynes, Perry’s spokeswoman.
“Throughout his engagements with Ukrainian officials — during both the Poroshenko and (Zelenskiy) administrations — Secretary Perry has consistently called for the modernization and reform of Kiev’s business and energy sector in an effort to create an environment that will incentivize Western companies to do business in Ukraine,” she said. “What he did not do is advocate for the business interests of any one individual or company. That is fiction being pushed by those who are disingenuously seeking to advance a nefarious narrative that does not exist.”
Perry had planned to leave the Department of Energy next month, with hopes of returning to Texas before what is expected to be a brutal presidential campaign season gets in full swing, according to people close to the discussions. But speaking with reporters in Lithuania on Monday, Perry downplayed reports of his departure.
“One of these days they will probably get it right,” he said. “But it’s not today, it’s not tomorrow, not next month. Keep saying it and one day you’ll be right.”
After three terms as governor of Texas and two presidential runs, Perry is likely to have a lucrative private-sector career in front of him, giving speeches, sitting on corporate boards and perhaps writing another book, said Matt Mackowiak, a political consultant in Austin.
‘Under a cloud’
But coming close to the likely end of his political career, the recent scrutiny potentially complicates his departure, he said.
“The single worse thing you could do is leave under a cloud, because it affects not only your legacy, but your future job prospects,” Mackoiwak said. “But I think this will die down. If there was something there, the Democrats would be going after Perry more.”