The Washington Post Sunday

Zinke resigns as secretary of Interior

Tenure was clouded by multiple inquiries into public, private conduct

- BY JULIET EILPERIN, JOSH DAWSEY AND DARRYL FEARS

Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted his resignatio­n to the White House on Saturday, facing intense pressure to step down because of multiple probes tied to his real estate dealings in his home state of Montana and his conduct in office.

President Trump announced Zinke’s exit via Twitter on Saturday morning and praised the departing Interior chief. “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. “Ryan has accomplish­ed much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation.”

Behind the scenes, however, the White House had been pushing Zinke for weeks to resign, administra­tion officials said. Last month, the officials said, Zinke was told he had until the end of the year to leave or be fired.

Zinke — 57 and the first Montanan to have served in a presidenti­al Cabinet — is the fourth member of Trump’s Cabinet to resign under an ethics cloud in less than two years. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Environmen­tal Protection Agency Administra­tor Scott Pruitt also relinquish­ed their posts amid scrutiny

on subjects including how they spent taxpayer money on their travel.

For Zinke, the key moment in his loss of support at the White House came in October, when Interior’s inspector general referred one of its inquiries to the Justice Department, according to two senior administra­tion officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.

That probe, which continues, is examining whether a land deal Zinke struck with the chairman of oil services giant Halliburto­n in his hometown of Whitefish, Mont., constitute­d a conflict of interest.

Zinke blamed his departure in a private resignatio­n letter, obtained by The Washington Post, on “vicious and politicall­y motivated attacks.”

In a tweet Saturday afternoon, he said, “I love working for the President and am incredibly proud of all the good work we’ve accomplish­ed together. However, after 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegation­s.”

As the leading advocate for Trump’s push to expand domestic energy production, the former Navy SEAL and congressma­n from Montana became a lightning rod for controvers­y. He was hailed by energy industry officials for relaxing Obama-era environmen­tal rules and opening up large areas of federal land and waters for oil and gas prospectin­g. But environmen­tal groups assailed his policies and conducted opposition research into his management practices and financial dealings.

Though Zinke won Senate confirmati­on by a vote of 68-to-31, views on him divided sharply along partisan lines as he promoted U.S. “energy dominance,” a phrase he often uttered when laying out department policy.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who successful­ly lobbied the Trump administra­tion to restart energy exploratio­n in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, said in a statement that she “was disappoint­ed to learn that Secretary Zinke is stepping down.”

“He has been a strong partner for Western states and for Alaska, in particular,” Murkowski said. “After years of frustratio­n with the Department, he came in and took a very different approach — he listened to us, built a great team, and worked with us to advance our priorities.”

Several advocacy groups welcomed his departure, even as they pivoted to attack Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who will take over in the interim. Bernhardt, a skilled policy expert who has steered most of the department’s key policy decisions since joining in August 2017, is one of several Western Republican­s who might be considered for the job.

“Ryan Zinke will go down as the most anti-conservati­on Interior secretary in our nation’s history,” Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement. “Surroundin­g himself with former lobbyists, it quickly became clear that Ryan Zinke was a pawn for the oil and gas industry. We can expect more of the same from Acting Secretary David Bernhardt, but without the laughable Teddy Roosevelt comparison­s.” Zinke had styled himself as a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, showcasing his love of hunting, and riding in the Montana wilderness.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said in an email that liberal activists might end up regretting their push to oust Zinke.

“The environmen­tal groups have claimed another scalp, but as with Pruitt, they’re going to be disappoint­ed,” said Sgamma, whose group represents several oil and gas firms. “The deputy secretary will move forward with the energy dominance agenda, and there’s no sign from the president that he’ll appoint another secretary who’s not on board with the successful job creation that results from that agenda.”

Administra­tion officials concluded weeks ago that Zinke was the Cabinet member most vulnerable to congressio­nal investigat­ions once Democrats took control of the House in January. But multiple crises, including wildfires out West and uncertaint­y over whether John F. Kelly would stay on as White House chief of staff, had afforded Zinke a temporary reprieve.

During his tenure, Zinke came under at least 15 investigat­ions, including: inquiries into his connection to a real estate deal involving a company that Interior regulates; whether he bent government rules to allow his wife to ride in government vehicles; and allowing a security detail to travel with him on a vacation to Turkey at considerab­le taxpayer cost.

Zinke was cleared in several of those investigat­ions, and he attacked his critics rather than adopt a more chastened tone. Late last month, he accused Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) — who had called on Zinke to step down and is poised to take over the committee that oversees Interior in January — of being a drunk.

“It’s hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle,” Zinke wrote from his official Twitter account on Nov. 30. Grijalva, who in the past had acknowledg­ed having a problem with alcohol but said it had been addressed, said the committee would not be distracted from examining Zinke’s actions.

It is unclear whether the federal inquiries will continue when Zinke leaves office.

On Saturday, Grijalva said in a statement, “This is no kind of victory, but I’m hopeful that it is a genuine turning of the page.”

“Secretary Zinke’s successor has a chance to move on from an unfortunat­e Trump administra­tion record of environmen­tal mismanagem­ent and decline,” he added. “A well-managed Interior Department — one that puts the public good ahead of fossil fuel and mining industry demands — can be a boon to the entire country.”

Although Zinke remained defifishin­g ant in public and private this month — less than two weeks ago, he boasted that he would continue to attack his critics — Trump had little personal affection for him. The president was annoyed by a few of Zinke’s actions, including his announcing in a January appearance with Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) that the state would be exempted from offshore drilling, a commitment that was not approved in advance by the White House, and a decision to allow imports of elephant trophies. Zinke reversed the decision on elephant trophies after Trump publicly intervened.

The secretary’s final public appearance was Thursday night at his office Christmas party, which he told White House staffers he wanted to have before his dismissal. He invited lobbyists and conservati­ve activists to his executive suite, where he posed for photos in front of a large stuffed polar bear wearing a Santa cap, according to an attendee.

Mounted animals on the walls were fitted with ornaments.

“He still has big-time political ambitions,” said one Republican with close ties to Zinke, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly.

The jockeying to replace Zinke as secretary has already begun, according to Republican­s who have been engaged in discussion­s with the administra­tion.

In addition to Bernhardt, the GOP candidates include outgoing Sen. Dean Heller (Nev.), Reps. Raúl R. Labrador (Idaho), Jeff Denham (Calif.), Cathy McMorris Rogers (Wash.), and Rob Bishop (Utah), who next month will relinquish his chairmansh­ip of the House Natural Resources Committee.

Zinke’s resignatio­n, which comes after Trump replaced his attorney general and White House chief of staff, could be followed soon by other Cabinet departures. The positions of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross remain precarious, according to White House officials.

For the moment, Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) seem eager to crow about the latest departure.

“Ryan Zinke was one of the most toxic members of the cabinet in the way he treated our environmen­t, our precious public lands, and the way he treated the government like it was his personal honey pot,” Schumer said in a tweet. “The swamp cabinet will be a little less foul without him.”

 ?? ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is the subject of multiple probes, and Interior’s inspector general referred one of its inquiries to the Justice Department, two senior administra­tion officials said.
ASTRID RIECKEN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is the subject of multiple probes, and Interior’s inspector general referred one of its inquiries to the Justice Department, two senior administra­tion officials said.

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