Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will leave the Trump administration at the end of the year amid a swirl of federal investigations into his travel, political activity and potential conflicts of interest.
President Donald Trump announced the secretary’s imminent departure on Twitter, without providing a rationale, following a Bloomberg News report that Zinke planned to announce his coming resignation on Wednesday. Trump said a new Interior chief will be named next week.
Zinke’s move comes as Democrats, who’ve vowed to grill him over his conduct, are about to take control of the House of Representatives, raising the prospect of heightened oversight — and a crush of legal bills from defending himself. Concern about the scrutiny and legal costs were factors in Zinke’s decision to quit, said the people, who asked not to be identified.
The departure also emerges as Trump grapples with other changes that underscore the challenges of filling vacancies in a tumultuous administration, and may be ready for a bigger shake-up at the halfway mark of his term. On Friday, the president announced that budget director Mick Mulvaney would take over as acting chief of staff, replacing John Kelly, whose ouster on Dec. 8 touched off a roller-coaster search to fill the key White House post.
The president had been aware of Zinke’s plans for several days; the interior chief was at the White House as recently as Wednesday. On Saturday Trump tweeted that Zinke, 57, had “accomplished much” during his almost two years at the head of the agency.
Zinke had championed using federal lands to pursue U.S. “energy dominance,” and that agenda will be continued by his likely successor as acting Interior Secretary: David Bernhardt, the agency’s No. 2 official. As deputy he’s played a key, behind-the-scenes role in shaping the department’s policies.
Other potential contenders for the post include Cynthia Lummis, a former congresswoman from Wyoming; Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes; Raul Labrador, an Idaho Representative who’s leaving Congress; Adam Laxalt, the Nevada attorney general who lost his bid to be governor; Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter; former Nevada Senator Dean Heller, who lost his re-election bid in November; Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state; and outgoing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
The role is typically filled by Western politicians who have experience navigating the vast federal lands.
Zinke had emerged as the chief target for Democrats who’ll control the House in the new Congress. The swirl of ethics probes also made him a lightning rod in the Trump Cabinet.
The Interior Department’s inspector general had initiated at least seven investigations directly targeting Zinke. A separate independent federal investigative agency also has opened as many as six other inquiries into allegations Zinke engaged in improper political activity — a volume that invited comparisons to the ousted Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt.
Environmentalists who battled Zinke’s policy actions rejoiced Saturday.
“With an average of nearly one federal investigation opened into his conduct in office per month, Zinke’s highly questionable ethics have finally caught up with him,” said Nicole Ghio, senior fossil fuels program manager for the environmental group Friends of the Earth.
Zinke played a leading part in the president’s campaign to roll back environmental regulations and promote American energy development. The Interior Department moved to auction off more oil leases, ended a moratorium on new sales of federally owned coal, and repealed mandates governing drilling. But the agency also continued work to advance renewable power, culminating in a record-setting sale on Friday of offshore wind leases near Massachusetts.
A former Navy SEAL and congressman from Montana, Zinke frequently invoked his military experience to make the case for making the U.S. “the strongest energy superpower this world has ever known,” arguing that U.S. soldiers shouldn’t “have to fight overseas for a commodity we have here.”
Zinke’s focus on Trump’s energy agenda won cheers from oil, gas and mining advocates, who credit the Trump administration with seeking to balance recreation and conservation with prudent development on public lands.
His possible replacement, Bernhardt, is a skilled lawyer who’s worked for an array of oil companies and developers with business before the Interior Department. He could start to serve in an acting capacity immediately, and if Trump later nominates him for the position, he could serve for years in a temporary status under federal law, even without Senate confirmation.
Zinke initially won tentative support from conservationists, public lands advocates and outdoor enthusiasts who were encouraged by his position of resisting Republican efforts to return U.S. federal lands to states.
But their enthusiasm turned to alarm after he began re-examining the boundaries of national monuments set aside by recent presidents, and ultimately setting up Trump’s decision to slash the size of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante sites in Utah.
Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group based in Denver, said in a statement that Zinke “will go down as the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation’s history.”
Environmental groups, outdoor gear company Patagonia Inc. and North American tribes are challenging the action in federal court, arguing federal law doesn’t give presidents the power to shrink national monuments created by their predecessors.
Zinke’s also drawn scrutiny for his handling of a draft plan for selling oil and gas leases in coastal waters over the next five years.
Just days after the Interior Department released an initial proposal opening the possibility of auctioning drilling rights in more than 90 percent of U.S. Outer Continental Shelf waters, Zinke offered a surprise promise that he would keep new platforms away from Florida. Critics said that was a political ploy designed to help Florida’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, in his successful bid to unseat Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, and they said the pronouncement provides fodder for future lawsuits over offshore drilling.
The most serious investigation involves a land deal in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Montana, between a charitable foundation he created and a property development group backed by David J. Lesar, the chairman of oilfield services provider Halliburton Co.
The foundation, run by Zinke’s wife, Lolita, is allowing Lesar and his family to use a portion of its land as a parking lot for a planned development. Democrats have suggested that a meeting Zinke held in 2017 with Lesar, Lesar’s son, and a Montana developer may have violated federal conflict of interest laws given the company’s broad interests before the Interior Department.
Zinke has said he stopped being involved in foundation matters after becoming secretary, and Halliburton has said Lesar’s personal involvement in a small real estate development has nothing to do with the company.
The inspector general has referred the probe to the Justice Department for further investigation, opening the possibility of a criminal prosecution.
Another inquiry is looking into Zinke’s decision to block Indian tribes from building a casino in Connecticut after lobbying from their chief competitor, MGM Resorts International, and despite the advice of employees with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.
And Interior’s inspector general previously concluded Zinke could have avoided spending $12,375 on a charter flight last year and faulted the secretary for allowing his wife to accompany him in U.S. government vehicles.
Weeks after the November elections Zinke publicly tangled with Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the Democrat set to lead the House panel that oversees the Interior Department. The pair traded public accusations of ethical lapses and drunken behavior.
After Grijalva wrote an opinion piece in USA Today calling on Zinke to resign over a series of “ethical and managerial failings,” Zinke fired back on Twitter, alleging “drunken and hostile behavior” by the Democrat and making a veiled reference to a Capitol Hill bar frequented by the lawmaker.
“This is no kind of victory, but I’m hopeful that it is a genuine turning of the page,” Grijalva said in statement on Saturday. “The next Interior Secretary should respect the American people’s desire for strong environmental standards and an end to corporate favoritism.”