Where’s Zinke? Interior chief ’s special flag offers clues
WASHINGTON — At the Interior Department’s headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., Secretary Ryan Zinke has revived an arcane military ritual that no one can remember ever happening in the federal government.
A security staffer takes the elevator to the seventh floor, climbs the stairs to the roof and hoists a special secretarial flag whenever Zinke enters the building. When the secretary goes home for the day or travels, the flag — a blue banner emblazoned with the agency’s bison seal flanked by seven white stars representing the Interior bureaus — comes down.
In Zinke’s absence, the ritual is repeated to raise an equally obscure flag for Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt.
Responding this week to questions from The Washington Post, a spokeswoman for Zinke, a former Navy SEAL commander, defended the Navy flag-flying tradition as “a major sign of transparency.”
“Ryan Zinke is proud and honored to lead the Department of the Interior, and is restoring honor and tradition to the department, whether it’s flying the flag when he is in garrison or restoring traditional access to public lands,” press secretary Heather Swift said in an email.
Zinke, a Stetsonwearing former Montana congressman who has cultivated an image as a rugged outdoorsman, has come under a harsh spotlight in recent weeks for behavior criticized as extravagant for a public official. The agency’s inspector general opened an investigation after he ran up bills for travel on chartered jets and mixed business with political appearances, sometimes accompanied by his wife, Lola. It’s one of five probes underway of Cabinet secretaries’ travel.
Zinke upset some of the 70,000 employees at the agency that manages public lands by stating that 30 percent of the workers are “not loyal to the flag” in a speech to oil and gas executives. It is unclear whether the reference was literal or figurative.
Zinke rode to work on horseback on his first day in office and displays animal heads on his wood-paneled office walls. For a while, he kept a glass-case display of hunting knives but was asked to remove them because of security risks, according to people familiar with the decision.
He has commissioned commemorative coins with his name on them to give to staff and visitors, but the cost to taxpayers is unclear.
“We’re talking about Cabinet members and federal buildings, not the Queen of England and Buckingham Place,” said Chris Lu, deputy Labor secretary in the Barack Obama administration, referring to the British tradition of announcing the queen’s presence by raising her personal heraldic flag.
“If we had a secretarial flag at the Obama Labor Department, we never bothered to locate it or use it,” Lu said.