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Ryan Zinke Is Quitting As Interior Department Secretary Amid Ethics Scandals

The outdoorsman, known for his love of taxidermy, is leaving the Interior after allegations that he used his power for personal financial gain.

Last updated on December 15, 2018, at 2:04 p.m. ET

Posted on December 15, 2018, at 9:22 a.m. ET

Ryan Zinke
Win Mcnamee / Getty Images

Ryan Zinke

Secretary Ryan Zinke is leaving the Interior Department, yet another high-profile departure from Trump’s cabinet.

Zinke arrived his first day on a horse. He’s leaving with less flourish — under scrutiny for possible financial conflicts in a Montana land deal, his decisions to shrink certain national monuments, and more.

“Secretary of the Interior @RyanZinke will be leaving the Administration at the end of the year after having served for a period of almost two years,” the president tweeted on Saturday morning. “Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation.”

The tweet came minutes after Bloomberg News reported Zinke would be leaving. Trump said he would announce a new pick to head the Interior Department next week. The president’s chief of staff, John Kelly, is also leaving at the end of 2018.

Although Zinke took over the Interior in March 2017 after a relatively smooth confirmation process, his tenure at the agency that oversees public lands has been steeped in controversy — from the Montana kickbacks to reshuffling the agency’s climate scientists to plotting a massive agency restructuring.

"I love working for the President and am incredibly proud of all the good work we’ve accomplished together," Zinke tweeted on Saturday. "However, after 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations."

Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican from Zinke's home state of Montana, praised the outgoing head of the Interior is a tweet on Saturday: "Thank you @SecretaryZinke for restoring commonsense management of our public lands, fighting to end the war on coal and for making the U.S. energy dominant. Montana is proud of you!"

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, was less kind. “This is no kind of victory, but I’m hopeful that it is a genuine turning of the page," he told BuzzFeed News in an email. "Secretary Zinke’s successor has a chance to move on from an unfortunate Trump administration record of environmental mismanagement and decline." Grijalva is the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee that oversees the interior and repeatedly clashed with Zinke. Tensions between the two men recently reached a fever pitch when Grijalva called for Zinke to resign in a USA Today op-ed and the Interior head accused the Congressman of being a drunk.

In October, the agency’s inspector general concluded that Zinke violated agency rules by letting his family members travel with him in government vehicles. The watchdog also confirmed that Zinke tried to get his wife, Lolita, a role at the agency, which would have let her travel with him for free, and that he failed to notify ethics officials that two people who joined him on an official boat ride once threw him a fundraiser. Interior also spent more than $25,000 on a security detail for Zinke’s vacation to Turkey and Greece, the report found.

Since then, Interior reportedly referred one of its probes to the Department of Justice, a rare move. White House officials told the Washington Post that President Trump was concerned about Zinke’s role in a Montana development project involving a foundation he founded (that is now run by his wife), and a group backed by the chair of energy company Halliburton. The land deal was first reported by Politico.

That’s on top of recent drama between the Interior and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD leader Ben Carson in mid-October emailed that one of his top political officials was moving to the Interior to take over the watchdog office, but no one had informed the Interior employees. The Interior denied this, and the HUD official resigned.

Interior Department

Zinke was among a handful of cabinet members privately called out by White House officials in the spring for ethics problems. (Scott Pruitt, another official tangled in ethics investigations, has since left the job as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.)

Under Zinke’s watch, the Interior Department has rolled back or proposed undoing several Obama-era environmental and safety rules. In March 2017, for example, the agency ended a moratorium on new coal leases on public lands. Last December, officials repealed a 2015 rule intended to reduce the risk of companies using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public lands. More recently, officials proposed watering down protections for endangered species. Some of these moves, among others, are being challenged in court, either by individual states, environmental groups, or both.

Besides looking for ways to expand energy production onshore, Zinke’s Interior proposed opening up most waters off the US coast to drilling for oil and gas, including those off Florida. Then, in a surprising move, Zinke abruptly changed his mind about Florida after talking with the state’s governor, sparking confusion and criticism over the seemingly arbitrary exception to the rule. The Interior took public comment on the proposal and is expected to soon provide an updated drilling plan. Meanwhile, Zinke’s political stunt with Florida is under review by the Office of Special Counsel for possibly violating the Hatch Act.

Zinke’s changes to national monuments were perhaps the most controversial of his tenure.

Following Trump’s orders, he opened a review of national monuments and ultimately recommended shrinking some. Trump later slashed a pair of national monuments in Utah, making the largest reduction of public land protections in US history.

Department of Interior / Twitter

Critics questioned whether the move was driven by fossil fuel interests in the area; released emails show federal officials did consider energy exploration during the decision process, seemingly contradicting claims by the White House. The Interior watchdog is looking into the decision to shrink the monuments, the New York Times reported.

The Center for Western Priorities, League of Conservation Voters, and other conservation groups were quick to celebrate Zinke's departure. “Ryan Zinke will go down as the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation’s history," Jennifer Rokala, executive director of Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement.

There have also been reports of agency officials switching climate scientists to different jobs, editing down climate information — or removing it completely — from agency websites, and limiting the science that officials can use to make decisions.

Zinke was a member of Congress representing Montana when he was nominated for the Interior job. Prior to that he was a Montana state senator, from 2009 to 2011, and served as a US Navy SEAL officer for more than two decades. He’s a fan of taxidermy, bringing dogs to work, and calling himself a “geologist” based on his undergraduate degree — a claim that’s annoyed some real geologists.


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