Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will step down by the end of this year, President Donald Trump announced Saturday, making him the latest Trump administration Cabinet official forced to resign amid scandal.
The resignation comes after reports that the Justice Department is considering whether to pursue a criminal investigation against the former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL, who is facing several probes into whether he has used his office for personal gain. His impending exit will make him the most recent in line of Trump administration officials to leave under a cloud of ethical scandals, including former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and former HHS Secretary Tom Price.
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“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. Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation,” Trump wrote on Twitter Saturday morning. “The Trump Administration will be announcing the new Secretary of the Interior next week.”
The Interior department’s internal watchdog had been investigating Zinke for his ties to a Montana land deal backed by Dave Lesar, chairman of the giant oil services company Halliburton, an issue first reported by POLITICO in June. The inspector also was examining whether he was doing favors for lobbyists when Interior blocked two American Indian tribes in Connecticut from receiving a casino license, an issue POLITICO revealed in February.
Zinke defended his actions Saturday afternoon without offering details.
“I love working for the President and am incredibly proud of all the good work we’ve accomplished together,” he tweeted. “However, after 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations.”
Speculation immediately swung to potential replacements for Zinke, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), outgoing Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), outgoing Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and outgoing Republican Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval. Another possible replacement is Rep. Jeff Denham, who lost his seat in the November election and is an ally of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a fellow California Republican.
But people inside and outside the industry said Trump might easily give the job to Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist with years of Beltway experience who has already been overseeing much of Interior’s operations. Bernhardt is set to become acting secretary when Zinke leaves.
The news of Zinke’s departure brought swift praise from House Democrats, who had been gearing up to add to his oversight woes when they come to power in January.
“Secretary Zinke has been a shameless handmaiden for the special interests,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “His staggering ethical abuses have delivered a serious and lasting blow to America’s public lands, environment, clean air and clean water.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who is set to chair the House Natural Resources Committee, told POLITICO in a statement that “I take no pleasure in this outcome, but Secretary Zinke’s conduct in office and President Trump’s failure to set ethical standards for his own cabinet made it inevitable.”
“The American people need the Interior Department focusing on climate change, public recreation and endangered species, not making the secretary’s life more financially comfortable,” Grijalva said.
Grijalva said Democrats are hoping for a “more productive” relationship with Zinke’s successor.
The two had tangled in November, when Grijalva wrote an op-ed calling for Zinke to step down and Zinke responded by calling Grijalva a drunk.
“It’s hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle,” Zinke wrote on his official Interior Department Twitter account — showing little apparent concern that Grijalva is about to get subpoena power.
The Natural Resources panel’s current chairman, Rob Bishop (R-Utah), had much higher praise for Zinke on Saturday.
“In the world of Washington politics, Zinke was an anomaly,” Bishop said in a statement. “He had a vision of a better future — an efficient department; a park system without a backlog; a staff who listened. Where others dithered he got stuff done.”
But Zinke’s work was hampered by the serial investigations into his handling of his private, political and official business.
The high turnover rate at the Cabinet level flows directly from President Donald Trump’s own mixing of business and politics, said Walter Shaub, who stepped down as director of the Office of Government Ethics in July 2017 and is now a senior adviser at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“My experience with them was they said, ‘Show me the exact rule that says you have to do exactly what you’re saying,’ and of course there’s never an exact rule that says don’t get into a land deal in Montana with an oil company,” Shaub said.
Zinke’s resignation also marks the first serious setback in a political career that took him from a state Senate seat in rural Montana to a Cabinet position in less than 10 years. But the promotion came with a spotlight on actions that eventually led to a near-constant series of investigations being opened up into this ethical behavior.
Zinke’s defenders stood by him, saying they believed he did nothing illegal.
“I have known Ryan a long time,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) said. “I’ve always known him to follow the law.”
Zinke’s penchant for mixing official business, political campaigning and family travel caused him problems almost as soon as he became secretary, however. Early on, he had Interior staff to look into his wife becoming a department “volunteer,” a designation that would allow her to travel with him at taxpayers’ expense, according to an investigation released in October by the IG’s office.
White House sources have said Trump liked Zinke, a horse-riding Westerner who once credited the president with building a conservation legacy “second only to Teddy Roosevelt.” People around Zinke also saw him as someone with potential for higher office, perhaps a Montana governor or even a White House candidate someday.
But Zinke’s senior staff occasionally cringed at some of his self-made blunders.
These included a January flight to Tallahassee in which Zinke announced that Florida would be exempt from Interior’s push for increased offshore drilling — a hastily arranged photo-op that aided then-Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s U.S. Senate hopes but blunted Trump’s efforts to expand oil production nationwide. Soon, other coastal state governors were publicly pressing for similar assurances that their shorelines would remain closed to drilling.
Meanwhile, an Alaska newspaper reported last year that Zinke had threatened reprisals against the state because of Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s vote against repealing Obamacare. Murkowski, who hold sway over Zinke’s department as leader of the Senate energy committee, promptly canceled votes on three Interior nominees — and Zinke soon tweeted a conciliatory photo of himself and the senator patching things up over some Alaska beers. (A federal probe of Zinke’s alleged threat fell apart after investigators said Interior refused to cooperate.)
Murkowski praised him on Saturday, saying in a statement he had been “a strong partner for western states and for Alaska, in particular. 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.”
Zinke also drew scrutiny for his mixing of politics and official business during taxpayer-funded travels such as trips to the U.S. Virgin Islands, a Montana ski resort and an Alaska steakhouse; his use of government helicopters to help him attend events such as a horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence; and his relationships with political operatives whom other conservatives have accused of misleading donors to so-called “scam PACs.”
Even as his myriad investigations became too distracting, he pitched himself to the White House as a potential replacement for outgoing United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were among the White House officials who opposed that move, one source told POLITICO.
Zinke’s next step might be into the private sector, though he still has an eye toward a eventual run for the White House, said sources familiar with his thinking.
The former congressman had at one point considered a run for governor in his home state in 2020, but his role in Trump’s shrinking of national monument borders, especially Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments, struck a nerve in Montana. And it appeared to make him politically toxic enough there that he did not appear at series of Trump rallies in the Treasure State in the waning days of the midterm campaign.
“It wasn’t like everything was unpopular,” said Brian Gottlieb, a Republican pollster who conducted a survey on Zinke in his home state on behalf of the Center for Western Priorities, a left-leaning group that has criticized Zinke. “But the public land thing was extreme. When his name came up, they would say, ‘Was he the guy who did that Utah thing?’”
Environmental and conservation groups who had fought with Zinke during his tenure did not relish having to deal with his replacement, however.
Bernhardt brought its own baggage, his critics have said, as his lobbyist and legal work for companies involved in mining, water rights and oil and gas production have laden him with potential conflicts of interest at Interior.
Bernhardt worked at Interior as solicitor during the George W. Bush administration, a time when the department had also been rocked by scandal over its division overseeing energy leases. He then went to lobbyist firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he worked for a client seeking to pump water from the Mojave Desert to Southern California.
Bernhardt has already been Interior’s point person for congressional negotiations around the department’s proposal to reorganize its regional districts around watersheds instead of state borders. He has also been instrumental in weakening Interior’s role in administering the Endangered Species Act, a move that environmental groups have said would allow more oil and gas drilling in ecologically sensitive areas.
Anthony Adragna, Eliana Johnson and Rachael Bade contributed to this report.