Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke—who, when he’s not wearing ranger hats backwards and insisting he’s a geologist has worked diligently to undermine environmental policies and rack up ethics scandals—is out, Donald Trump tweeted on Saturday.
Zinke will depart at the end of 2018, the president wrote.
Like former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, Zinke is a loyal soldier in Trump’s war on environmental regulations but came under increasing fire from federal ethics watchdogs (including his agency’s own). Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat who will lead the House Natural Resources Committee next year, alluded to “17 publicly known formal probes” of Zinke or his agency’s conduct in an op-ed calling for his resignation last month. Some of the outbound secretary’s biggest hits, per CNN:
The Interior inspector general has multiple inquiries into the secretary, including the department’s handling of a Connecticut casino project, whether the boundaries for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument were redrawn to benefit a state lawmaker, and conversations between Zinke and Halliburton Chairman David Lesar about a land development project in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana.
That last tidbit about the land deal—in which Zinke stood to benefit financially and the Halliburton executive could have potentially secured favorable decisions on oil drilling—was reported to have been referred to the Justice Department by Interior’s own inspector general, indicating that Zinke might in fact face criminal charges over the incident. Zinke insisted to CNN the matter was a “politically driven investigation that has no merit” and that he had not been contacted by DOJ personnel, though his departure from the administration is not exactly a ringing endorsement of his assessment.
Other skeletons in Zinke’s closet have included a bizarre scandal in which he allegedly threatened Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski that he would punish her state if she did not vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, as well as reassigned Interior staff in possible violation of federal law. Both of those investigations ended with Interior’s inspector general declining to pursue the matters further, Bloomberg wrote.
According to the New York Times, administration officials finally persuaded Trump to push Zinke out over ethics concerns despite a cozy relationship between the two men and a friendship with Donald Trump Jr. based on their mutual love of game hunting. Two sources told the paper Zinke was advised he should “leave by year’s end or risk being fired in a potentially humiliating way.” It’s unclear precisely when the decision was made, but Zinke was seen in the White House “as recently as Wednesday,” according to Bloomberg.
Grijalva said that scrutiny of Zinke would intensify when Democrats take control of the House in 2019, with the Times reporting that several officials were advised an early exit could help avoid subpoenas. (Zinke responded by calling Grijalva a drunk who can’t “think straight from the bottom of the bottle.”)
The Times noted that Zinke’s record included attempting to open the East Coast to offshore drilling, weakening the Endangered Species Act, slashing the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments, and opening up 12.8 million acres of federally-controlled oil and gas fields for lease, none of which is likely to stop under his likely successor:
Rather than an end to Mr. Zinke’s pro-fossil fuel policies, the resignation quite likely signals a passing of the playbook. Mr. Zinke’s deputy, David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, is expected to step in as acting head of the department.
... Since his Senate confirmation last summer, Mr. Bernhardt has generated criticism from environmental and government watchdog groups that his new role will create a conflict of interest, as he oversees proposals that could directly benefit his former clients.
“Zinke’s days of plundering our lands and enriching himself and his friends are over,” Nicole Ghio, a senior fossil fuels program manager for Friends of the Earth, told CNN. “With an average of nearly one federal investigation opened into his conduct in office per month, Zinke’s highly questionable ethics have finally caught up with him. Now, he is just another name on Trump’s list of disgraced cabinet officials, which the Republican-led Congress has failed to hold accountable.”
Center for Western Priorities executive director Jennifer Rokala told Bloomberg that Zinke “will go down as the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation’s history.”
Zinke is reportedly eyeing a run for governor of Montana, CNN reported, but as of now there’s no indication that his political ambitions are any more likely to pay off than Pruitt’s.
Update: 12/15/2018, 5:15 p.m. ET: In a terse statement posted to Twitter, Zinke claimed that he was leaving the administration because he “cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations.”
Looks like someone’s under the impression that this will all just go away now.