Interior Secretary Zinke must resign
He’s embroiled in ethics and management failures
Ryan Zinke needs to resign immediately as secretary of the Interior.
I have resisted calling for this step even as questions have grown about Mr. Zinke’s ethical and managerial failings. Unfortunately, his conduct in office and President Donald Trump’s neglect in setting ethical standards for his own Cabinet have made it unavoidable.
Mr. Zinke has never even tried to offer an explanation for the sheer scope of his well-documented scandals. This silence is insulting to the American people, and unsustainable given the Nov. 6 election results. Mr. Zinke holds his job as a public trust, not a stepping stone to his personal ambitions. He has abused that trust and damaged the Interior Department. The least he can do is step down and give his successor a chance to begin reversing that damage.
It’s worth recounting how far that abuse went on Republicans’ watch. As has been widely reported, an Interior Department inspector general investigation of Mr. Zinke — one of at least 17 publicly known formal probes of either him or his department — was recently referred to the Justice Department.
The focus is a land development project called 95 Karrow in Mr. Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana, involving David Lesar, the chairman of oil contractor Halliburton; his son John; and a Montana property developer named Casey Malmquist. The proposal would increase the value of land controlled by Mr. Zinke’s family.
I am the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Interior Department, and earlier this year I asked my staff to look into this relationship. They discovered that Mr. Zinke met with all three men on Aug. 3, 2017, in his office, then led them on a private tour of the Lincoln Memorial. Mr. Zinke’s public calendar does not include the attendees of the meeting or of the Lincoln tour — we know because Mr. Zinke’s scheduler mentioned it in a personal email.
When three of us on the committee publicized that finding in our call for an investigation of 95 Karrow, we had no idea where the facts would lead. It is Mr. Zinke’s fault that the Justice Department was alerted, not the fault of the news media or anyone else his office has chosen to blame.
Beyond his personal foibles, Mr. Zinke has overseen the degradation of Interior’s senior workforce; announced plans to cut thousands of permanent positions; prompted mass resignations from a nonpartisan National Park Service advisory board; and tied employees and aides in knots to make himself and his wife financially comfortable. These are not the hallmarks of an effective leader.
His policy direction at Interior is equally unfortunate. He has overseen the dumbing down of science, often with a partisan edge. Rather than advancing their agencies’ multiple-use mission for public lands, many on staff spend their days relaxing environmental and permitting standards for fossil fuel companies. They are forced to remove mentions of humans’ climate change impacts from official reports.
They are instructed, above all, to make President Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda the sole guiding principle of environmental policy. That’s even though its giveaways are so extreme that the president of the pro-industry Western Energy Alliance once said they exceeded even her funders’ wildest expectations.
I have sent dozens of unanswered letters seeking information about Interior Department policies and Mr. Zinke’s conduct. Should I chair the committee in January, as I hope to do, those questions will only intensify as part of our legitimate oversight duties.
The American people need an Interior Department focused on addressing climate change, enhancing public recreation, protecting endangered species, and upholding the sovereign rights of Native American communities. These are not matters of personal preference — they are enshrined in law and supported by voters. The department needs someone accountable at the helm who believes in this mission.
Mr. Zinke is not that person. Federal agencies cannot function without credible leadership, and he offers none. He needs to resign.