Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is making headlines left and right, for all the wrong reasons. Over the past two days, the man in charge of managing the nation’s public lands and resources has been accused of wasting taxpayer money on expensive travel; failing to disclose potential conflicts of interest; having an inappropriately close relationship to a top energy lobbyist; and lying about his professional credentials.
Zinke’s growing scandals look eerily similar to those surrounding Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who made more than a few headlines himself last week. Pruitt has survived thus far, thanks to his good personal relationship with Trump, support from the Republican base and donor class, and the widespread (and mistaken) belief on the right that he’s been an effective administrator.
What happens if Zinke’s scandals overtake the news cycle, as Pruitt’s briefly did? Will Trump also have Zinke’s back?
The ethics concerns about Zinke didn’t begin this week. Like Pruitt, he has been accused of extravagant spending on travel. CNN reported in February that Zinke “used Park Police and other government helicopters to shuttle himself to events”—flights that “cost taxpayers more than $14,000 and that he spent $3,100 on private planes on a trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands.” Zinke also took a $12,000 charter flight from Las Vegas to his home in Montana, forgoing the daily commercial airline flights that run between the two airports for as little as $300.
There are also questions about whether Zinke is trying to hide these spending habits from government watchdogs. Mary Kendall, the Interior Department’s deputy inspector general, said in November that Zinke had provided “absent or incomplete documentation for several pertinent trips,” and routinely failed to “distinguish between personal, political and official travel” when seeking spending authorizations. Pruitt has faced similar questions from Trey Gowdy, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who said recently that Pruitt has not fully complied with requests for information about the EPA chief’s travel expenses.
Some of the most severe allegations against Pruitt pertain to his close relationship with former donors and the fossil-fuel industry. Zinke has similarly close ties. An ongoing investigation into potential Hatch Act violations by Zinke has found that he used official business trips to meet with wealthy Republican donors for Trump’s presidential campaign. The $12,000 flight he took from Las Vegas to Montana was on a plane owned by a Wyoming oil and gas executive (the Interior Department regulates all oil and gas development on public and tribal lands). The reason he was in Las Vegas in the first place was to give a speech to the city’s new NHL team, the Golden Knights, the owner of which was a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaign.
And that was before all of this week’s news. On Monday, HuffPost uncovered documents showing how some Interior Department decisions to roll back regulations on public lands mirrored a wish list from an energy lobbyist. (Many of Pruitt’s regulatory decisions similarly mirror a wish list from coal baron Robert E. Murray.) That same day, The New York Times published evidence that Zinke is treating public land in Montana differently than other states, choosing to fiercely protect land in his home state while allowing fossil fuel development everywhere else. Also on Monday, the Interior Department’s inspector general said Zinke did not disclose enough information in seeking approval for his flight from Las Vegas.
“If ethics officials had known Zinke’s speech would have no nexus to the [Interior Department], they likely would not have approved this as an official event, thus eliminating the need for a chartered flight,” the inspector general report said. “Moreover, had ethics officials been made aware that the Golden Knights’ owner had been a donor to Zinke’s congressional campaign, it might have prompted further review and discussion.”
Also on Monday, CNN reported that Zinke used his radio show in 2013 to push baseless conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama’s place of birth and the Boston Marathon bombing. In 2016, the report added, Zinke became the only U.S. congressman to appear on a radio show called “Where’s Obama’s Birth Certificate.” And in the the most bizarre of Zinke’s new scandals, CNN revealed Tuesday that he has repeatedly claimed that he is a geologist. He’s not a geologist; he simply majored in geology as an undergraduate.
Being a birther and inflating one’s credentials is not enough to cost someone a job in the Trump administration. Sometimes, extravagant spending and ethical violations also aren’t enough, as Pruitt has shown. But Zinke is vulnerable in ways his EPA counterpart is not.
Whereas Pruitt is apparently still popular among Trump supporters in coal country, Zinke has drawn ire from some who are supposed to be his allies. Rural residents and ranchers in Washington state reportedly felt “betrayed” after Zinke decided to move forward with a conservation plan to restore grizzly bears in the region. Hunting and fishing groups that initially welcomed Zinke’s appointment are now turning on him because of his opposition to conservation programs and ties to fossil fuel companies; one national sportsmen’s group even launched an ad campaign against him. Powerful Republican politicians across the East Coast opposed Zinke’s proposal to allow offshore drilling in the Atlantic. And nearly everyone in America was miffed when Zinke proposed raising entrance fees at 17 national parks from $25 to $70. (Zinke recently backed down on that proposal.)
But Zinke also has the overwhelming support of the fossil fuel industry and the monied conservative political groups that push its agenda. Like Pruitt, he has been one of the most prolific members of Trump’s cabinet when it comes to enacting policies that would benefit oil, gas, and coal. Both Zinke and Pruitt are said to have their eye on higher political office, and those ambitions depend on the fossil-fuel industry’s financial support. Trump’s re-election will depend on that support as well. It’s hard to envision Trump upsetting those interests over ethics controversies, given that he’s facing a few of those himself.