President Donald Trump announced Saturday morning that Ryan Zinke—who, as Interior secretary, oversees nearly one-fifth of all land in the United States—will leave his post at the end of the year. Trump said he will nominate a new secretary in the next week, though Zinke will likely be replaced in an acting capacity by David Bernhardt, the current deputy secretary.
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.......
During his 22-month tenure as head of the department, Zinke adopted a cozy relationship with oil and gas interests that unnerved swaths of the agency’s more than 70,000 federal employees and helped spark at least a dozen federal investigations into his conduct. Like former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, Zinke displayed an abiding personal loyalty to Trump coupled with a distrust of the department’s career staffers. Last September, he told members of a trade group stocked with oil industry executives that 30 percent of his “crew” were not “loyal to the flag.”
In July, the department’s inspector general opened an investigation into whether a land deal involving Zinke’s foundation and the chairman of oil services giant Halliburton constituted a conflict of interest. The project would have been near land owned by Zinke’s family foundation in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, and produced a “potential financial benefit” for Zinke and his wife by increasing the value of their land, CNN reported. Last month, the IG’s office referred an unspecified inquiry to the Justice Department for a possible criminal investigation. It was not immediately clear if the DOJ was looking into the land deal or one of Zinke’s other much-scrutinized moves, such as letting his wife use government vehicles without a clear justification. Zinke denied wrongdoing in both cases, but the Washington Post reported earlier this month that Trump had become increasingly concerned about the allegations against his Interior secretary.
In a statement Saturday afternoon, Zinke said he stepped down because he could not “justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations.”
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. Full statement attached. pic.twitter.com/gwo75SA6bM
Upon taking over at Interior, Zinke sidelined career employees with experience working on Obama-era priorities like climate change and wildlife conservation in favor of political appointees with close ties to Zinke, experience in former Republican administrations, or ties to the oil and gas industry. Indur Goklany, a longtime department staffer who once argued that rising levels of carbon dioxide emissions could be a “good thing,” became an influential voice for aligning Interior’s climate change work with the skeptical stance taken by the Trump White House. In one unprecedented decision, Zinke ordered that all federal grants exceeding $50,000 be routed through an office run by a former high school football teammate. The review dramatically slowed down more than $5.5 billion in funding to typical recipients like the Climate Adaptation Science Centers.
Zinke is the latest high-profile departure to rattle a presidential administration that has already cycled through four national security advisers and five communication directors. Two months ago, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced her departure, sparking some rumors that Zinke might be nominated as her replacement. That didn’t happen, but Zinke is leaving Interior anyway. In his absence, the department is expected to undergo a transition familiar to employees of the EPA: a high-flying director turning over the reins to an under-the-radar, ex-lobbyist deputy with much more knowledge of the department.
Dan Spinelli is an editorial fellow in Mother Jones’ DC bureau who covers environmental policy and national politics.
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