Embattled Zinke defends legacy after leaving Trump Cabinet
BILLINGS, Mont. — As former U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke exits Washington amid a cloud of unresolved investigations and criticism of his actions favoring industry, he told The Associated Press that he has lived up to the conservation ideals of Teddy Roosevelt and insisted that the myriad allegations against him will be proven untrue.
The former Montana congressman also said he quit President Donald Trump’s cabinet on his own terms, despite indications he was pressured by the White House to resign effective Wednesday.
During almost two years overseeing an agency responsible for managing 500 million acres of public lands, Zinke’s broad rollbacks of restrictions on oil and gas drilling were cheered by industry. But they brought a scathing backlash from environmental groups and Democratic lawmakers who accused him of putting corporate profits ahead of preservation.
In his first interview since Trump announced his resignation last month, Zinke said the changes he made at Interior meshed with Roosevelt’s beliefs and were needed to unfetter energy companies held back by unreasonable drilling curbs imposed under former President Barack Obama.
“Teddy Roosevelt said conservation is as much development as it is preservation,” Zinke said, quoting from a 1910 speech by the Republican president. “Our work returned the American conservation ethic to best science, best practices … rather than an elitist view of non-management that lets nature take its course.”
House Democrats plan to put Zinke’s almost two-year tenure under the spotlight with oversight hearings beginning next month, said Adam Sarvana, a spokesman for Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the Democrat in line to lead the House Natural Resources Committee.
The hearings initially will focus on policy changes under Zinke’s leadership including “giveaways” to the oil and gas industry, Sarvana said. He added that the hearings later could be expanded to include the various ethics investigations pending against Zinke if those allegations are shown to have merit.
The investigations have ranged from a probe into a land deal involving Zinke and the chairman of energy services giant Halliburton, to questions about his decision to reject a casino in Connecticut sought by two tribes.
During his interview with the AP, Zinke denied a Washington Post report that he may have lied to the Interior Department’s inspector general, which has reportedly prompted an examination of potential criminal violations by the U.S. Justice Department’s public integrity section.
Several other investigations into Zinke concluded with no findings of wrongdoing. However, in one case he was faulted by investigators for violating a department policy by allowing his wife to ride in government vehicles with him. That report also said the Interior Department spent more than $25,000 to provide security for the couple during a vacation to Turkey and Greece.
For the energy industry, Zinke brought relief from rules imposed under Obama that were meant to limit drilling in sensitive wildlife habitat, curb emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon monoxide and protect water supplies.
Despite the Democrats’ newfound power in Washington and regardless of who is nominated to replace Zinke, industry representatives said the changes he made will be lasting. That’s because they were made through Interior Department regulations rather than Congressional action, said Dan Naatz, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
“Although Secretary Zinke was effective at what he was doing, the policy really came from the president,” Naatz said. “We don’t expect any major changes.”
Until Trump nominates and the Senate confirms a permanent replacement, Zinke’s shoes will be filled on an acting basis by his deputy, David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the oil and gas industry. Left-leaning groups that campaigned against Zinke already have turned their attention to Bernhardt with claims that his prior work leaves him compromised.
“David Bernhardt is too conflicted to serve him in any position, whether it’s deputy, acting or full Interior secretary,” said Aaron Weiss with the Center for Western Priorities. Weiss suggested pending investigations against Zinke are likely to continue and said the former secretary “can’t make his trouble go away by simply walking away.”
In his resignation letter, Zinke said he was compelled to stop down because the political attacks against him had created a distraction from Trump’s drive to boost U.S. energy production.
He told the AP that the allegations against him fit into a “playbook” used by the administration’s critics to stifle Trumps energy agenda, smear Zinke’s name and undercut any future bid he might make for public office. Zinke said he won’t run for Montana governor in 2020. But he did not rule out a future run for public office.
“I am certainly done with public service during this (election) cycle,” he said. “It would have to be a compelling reason to come back given the hostility, the threats levied against my family … What I want to do is spend time with my family. I plan on fishing and hiking and enjoying the great Montana outdoors.”
In the weeks leading up to his resignation, the White House concluded Zinke was likely the Cabinet member most vulnerable to investigations led by newly empowered Democrats in Congress, according to an administration official not authorized to publicly discuss personnel matters who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In Zinke’s telling of events, Trump remained fully supportive to the end and it was the secretary himself who made the decision to go.
“The president does not want me to leave. The president thinks it’s B.S., too. That’s his words,” Zinke said, referring to the allegations against him. “It was my decision based on what I thought was best for both the president and Interior, and I think the president reluctantly agreed.”