As President Trump has hired and fired top advisers and cabinet secretaries at a record rate, Rick Perry has hung in there. He has been widely regarded (when he was regarded at all) as one of the most competent and least scandal-tainted top officials in the administration. This description has often been told as a joke, though it’s hard to say at whose expense. But the changing of the seasons brings reassuring news for fans of James Richard Perry of Paint Creek, Texas, our irrepressible rascal of old: That guv you like is going to come back in style.
When Trump first launched his campaign for President, Perry warned that his fellow reality TV star was a “cancer on conservatism” that “must be clearly diagnosed, excised, and discarded.” A year and a half later, Perry joined Trump’s cabinet to lead the Department of Energy, the agency he famously couldn’t remember that he wanted to abolish. His two predecessors were both highly esteemed physicists—one with a Nobel Prize under his belt—while Perry famously got a D in a class called “Meats” at Texas A&M.
Perry was soon the subject of eyebrow-raising reports that he had accepted the job “believing he was taking on a role as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry,” when in fact the Department of Energy is primarily concerned with the nation’s nuclear stockpile, and tries desperately to keep residents of the Pacific Northwest from finding three-eyed fish in the Columbia River.
Perry’s people denied the stories, while liberals chortled. But the joke was on them. With the President’s approval, Perry could use his time in office to do whatever he wanted. As it turned out, what Perry wanted was to serve as a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry, particularly as an advocate for the exportation of liquid natural gas, which the department has rebranded as “freedom gas.” Perry is a dealmaker, or at least a deal cheerleader. That’s the role he preferred to play as governor.
Perhaps hawking LNG advances the national interest. But it also seems like a pretty savvy way to spend your time in office if you know you’ll soon be out in the private sector for good. Perry’s work at the Energy Department helped expand a lucrative industry in Texas, which doubtless benefited many of his longtime friends, and acquainted him with a worldwide network of energy ministers and the failsons of autocrats who run corrupt state-owned oil companies.
Here was a fellow, in other words, with a pretty good plan for how to serve his time in the Trump administration. Unlike the worst scoundrels—your Scott Pruitts and Ryan Zinkes, who let high office go to their heads—Perry has helped the wealthy get wealthier and kept a low profile. A longtime friend boasted that Perry was preparing an exit having left “virtually no drama” behind. After a career of habitual line-stepping, Perry seemed ready to call it quits, to come home to Round Top with his money and his dog and his jogging pistol.
Except. Except! It turns out that one of the places he was promoting American Freedom Gas is a somewhat tumultuous former Soviet republic called Ukraine, which has been in the news lately for other reasons. And to the amazement of onlookers, Perry’s actions in Ukraine have been annexed, as suddenly as, say, Crimea, into the impeachment inquiry into Trump.
On October 4, as Perry’s name was bubbling up in press reports about the Ukraine inquiry, Trump grabbed him by the arm and yanked him over to use as a human shield. You know the call to Ukranian prime minister Zelensky that Trump is in trouble for? Trump told House members on a conference call that he didn’t want to call the prime minister at all, but that Perry had pressured him to do so. This looked like Perry, on his way out already, was getting thrown under the bus to protect Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who is thought to be the one who actually arranged the call in which Trump urged Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden, and his son Hunter. The incident didn’t implicate Perry in any crimes—it just ensured that he’d be put under a bright, hot spotlight he would rather avoid.
But on October 7, an extraordinary series of stories broke that raised much more serious questions about what Perry was getting up to in Kyiv. At the same time that Giuliani was pushing the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens, several of Giuliani’s associates were attempting to make money from Ukraine’s state-owned gas company, Naftogaz. After those attempts, Perry pressed the Ukrainian prime minister and other Ukrainian officials to fire members of Naftogaz’s supervisory board and fill the seats with his preferred candidates, which included American businessmen with ties to the Republican party. According to sources quoted by the Associated Press, Perry floated the names of two Texas businessmen with Ukraine ties, Michael Bleyzer and Robert Bensh, a former Perry campaign contributor. Neither has been accused of any wrongdoing.
Perry reportedly made this request, or demand, at least twice, the second time in the room with Gordon Sondland and Kurt Volker, two diplomats appointed by Trump who have been implicated in pushing for the Biden investigations. (Perry has since said that the Ukrainian government requested his advice on energy experts and that he applied no pressure on the Ukrainian government.) In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Perry admitted that he had been in communication with Giuliani, but he didn’t say why, and Perry’s spokesperson declined to offer any clarifying details about the call.
Maybe what happened here was illegal. Maybe it was legal and proper. Maybe it was legal and improper. Regardless, it’s pure catnip for congressional investigators—not to mention for longtime fans of Perry’s antics. The outlines are still a bit fuzzy, but there appears to be significant overlap between the Biden thing and this Naftogaz thing, and investigation into the former is likely to involve digging into the latter. On Wednesday, in an extraordinary development, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, the two friends of Giuliani who wanted a piece of Naftogaz and are major Republican donors, were arrested trying to flee the country at Dulles International Airport. (Former Dallas congressman Pete Sessions has also been swept up in the Parnas/Fruman affair.) And then, on Thursday, House Democrats served Perry with his very own subpoena.
Perry is not likely to be enjoying the antique shops in Round Top anytime soon. After nearly 35 years in office, facing off against weak opponents and weak watchdogs, having already escaped one indictment for practicing power politics, our home state hero has finally found himself near the middle of a proper political scandal, with a president who seems keen to use his body for a barricade. Let’s see how he does!