Politics

Amid Corruption Charges, Zinke Is Leaving as Interior Secretary

Trump had expressed concern about allegations against former House member

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will be leaving his post at the end of the year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Updated 12:35 p.m. | Embattled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will be the latest senior official to leave the Trump administration after months of being dogged by corruption charges.

President Donald Trump made the announcement on Twitter, saying the former Montana congressman would be leaving his post at the end of the year.

“Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation,” the president said. “The Trump Administration will be announcing the new Secretary of the Interior next week.”

Trump had previously said Zinke was doing a “good job” implementing his agenda but said he wanted to look into the allegations against him.

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Zinke had been under scrutiny for his possible dealings with a developer working on a project near land in Montana that he and his wife, Lola, own. At issue is whether Zinke used his office for financial benefit; the Interior Department’s inspector general referred the matter to the Justice Department.

He also has faced questions about his treatment of the department’s travel policies, also for personal benefit.

With his departure, Zinke, who has recently publicly sparred with House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl M. Grijalva, would appear to have dodged having to testify before the committee next year when the Arizona Democrat is expected to take over as chairman.

“This is no kind of victory, but I’m hopeful that it is a genuine turning of the page,” Grijalva said Saturday. “The next Interior secretary should respect the American people’s desire for strong environmental standards and an end to corporate favoritism. The Democratic majority on the Natural Resources Committee will be ready to assist in that effort starting in January.”

But Grijalva’s GOP counterpart on the panel said the nation owes Zinke gratitude for the work he did at Interior.

“He had a vision of a better future — an efficient department, a park system without a backlog, a staff who listened,” outgoing Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah said. “Where others dithered he got stuff done.”

David Bernhardt, the current Interior deputy secretary, is expected to serve as acting secretary until a permanent nominee can be confirmed by the Senate. 

‘People leave’

Zinke’s departure comes weeks after another Cabinet member, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, resigned at Trump’s request on Nov. 7, one day after the midterms that handed Democrats control of the House and investigative powers.

“People leave,” Trump said during a rowdy 90-minute press conference just hours before Sessions’ departure was announced in a tweet.

“And I’ll tell you, there will be changes. Nothing monumental from that standpoint. I don’t think very much different than most administrations,” Trump said. “We have many people lined up for every single position. Any position.

“Everybody wants to work in this White House. We are a hot country. This is a hot White House,” the president added. “We are a White House that people want to work with.”

Zinke was a featured speaker at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Trump accepted his party’s nomination. He is also a former Navy SEAL and a trained geologist.

As a House member, Zinke targeted energy and minerals policy as a member of the Natural Resources Committee. Representing the eighth-largest coal-producing state, Zinke was critical of EPA regulations compelling coal-fired power plants to either cut their emissions further or shut down completely. He had also criticized the Obama administration’s rules on royalties for fossil fuels extracted on public lands.

Zinke apparently edged out House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers for the Interior spot. She presumably becomes one of a handful of potential candidates to replace her former House GOP colleague.

On his first official day as secretary, the Big Sky Country native rode a horse through the streets of Washington to Interior headquarters.

Niels Lesniewski and Elvina Nawaguna contributed to this report.

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