If anyone had any doubts that the Democratic victory in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections represented a sea change in Washington DC, today’s resignation by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke should disabuse them of any uncertainty.
With the threat of multiple investigations by a Democratic-led House into his dubious personal real estate deals and his cozy ties to the energy industries he enriched by opening previously protected federal land to oil, gas, and mineral exploration, Zinke reportedly was told by Chief of Staff John Kelly — in one of his last official duties before he himself was ousted from his position — that he should resign before the new year or face the humiliation of being publicly dismissed, according to a report in The New York Times.
President Trump announced Zinke’s resignation in typical fashion through a tweet.
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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…….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 15, 2018
Zinke’s “accomplishments” include being the subject of at least six different federal inquiries into accusations of ethics violations, with at least one investigation referred to the Justice Department for potential prosecution. While it is still unknown which of the matters was sent to prosecutors, speculation has it that it was the real estate deal between the Zinke family and a development group led by the chairman of Halliburton, that would personally enrich Zinke while providing the oil services company with access to energy resources.
The New York Times detailed several of the other probes that Zinke has been undergoing:
“Beyond examining the real estate deal, the Interior Department’s inspector general had faulted Mr. Zinke for allowing his wife, Lola, to travel in government vehicles, contrary to department policy, and chided him for using $12,000 in taxpayer money to take a charter plane after a talk to a hockey team owned by one of his biggest donors,” the newspaper wrote.
“The inspector general has also been examining the secretary’s decision to block two Native American tribes from opening a casino in Connecticut after his office received heavy lobbying from MGM Resorts International. The entertainment giant had been planning its own casino not far from the proposed tribal one,” they added
Zinke has denied any violations of the law in his business dealings, saying “I followed every procedure, every policy, every rule, and most importantly I followed the law.” He is, however, the fourth member of Trump’s cabinet to resign under a cloud of ethics scandals during the less than two years of the administration, following Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt out the door.
According to The Times, Zinke’s departure was accelerated by advice from the White House counsel’s office which advised some of the more vulnerable officials in the administration that they would be less likely to be subpoenaed by the new Democratic committee chairpersons in the House if they exited their positions before the January commencement of the new Congress.
Zinke’s shameful legacy at the Interior Department includes such despicable actions as shrinking the boundaries of two beloved national monuments, expanding offshore oil drilling, weakening protections for endangered species and reversing an Obama-era ban on elephant and lion hunting trophy imports. Unfortunately, his likely replacement as acting Interior Secretary, his deputy David Bernhard, is a former oil lobbyist who is sure to continue implementing equally heinous policies.
In one bit of good news contained in today’s Times report, the paper is speculating that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have fallen out of President Trump’s favor and may be the next cabinet members to hit the metaphorical chopping block.
It looks like the Trump administration will have to dip back into the increasingly shrinking pool of “only the best people” to find replacements for those who have already jumped ship from the SS Trumptanic.
Follow Vinnie Longobardo on Twitter.