Embattled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is resigning from his post amid a potential Department of Justice investigation into whether he tried to profit from the powerful position by abusing travel privileges and engaging in activities that posed a conflict of interest.
President Trump announced the departure on Twitter moments after news of Zinke leaving began to leak, thanking the latest member of his cabinet to exit for his service. But Zinke's departure had been forecast for weeks as the White House has been trying to push him out the door.
Zinke, whose views on everything from departmental diversity and climate change generated extensive controversy during his tenure, may be leaving over concerns that defending himself from a probe into his travel, potential conflicts of interest and political activity might cost too much money, according to a Bloomberg report Saturday morning.
According to CNN, Justice Department investigators are examining whether Zinke used his “office for personal gain.”
The DOJ investigation came in the wake of a department Inspector General finding that Zinke abused his position by letting family members travel with him in government vehicles. His wife, Lolita, was invited to travel on a boat. He also handed the Interior Department a $25,000 bill, to cover a security detail for his family during their summer vacation in Greece and Turkey, The Guardian reported. The agency revamped its travel policy in July, permitting Zinke to ferry his family “after being made aware of our investigation.”
The Department of Interior’s Inspector General, which has carried out “at least three” Zinke-related probes, is also examining his real-estate deal with Halliburton’s chairman and his refusal to let two Native American tribes run a casino in Connecticut, per The Washington Post.
While the department's inspector general does issue reports after an investigation, referring results to the DOJ is reportedly only done in cases of “potential criminal violations.”
Meanwhile, House Democrats had eyed Zinke as part of a broader probe into Donald Trump’s environmental policies.
News of Zinke’s departure comes about two weeks after he antagonized a House Democrat who called for his resignation.
After Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva penned an op-ed in favor of Zinke stepping down, the outgoing Interior Secretary tweeted that Grijalva was “Drunk,” saying in a screed that “It’s hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle...This is coming from a man who used nearly $50,000 in tax dollars as hush money to cover up his drunken and hostile behavior.”
Zinke’s allegations appeared to reference a Washington Times article that claimed Grijalva tried exacting a severance package from a former employer who canned him for on-the-job drunkenness. Grijalva denied these accusations.
The Arizona Democrat who is poised to lead the House Natural Resources Committee in January was set to aggressively investigate the Interior Department. On Saturday, he said in a statement that “this is no kind of victory, but I'm hopeful that it is a genuine turning of the page.”
Environmental groups similarly did not have good wishes for Zinke on his way out.
“Secretary Zinke turned the Interior Department into a wholly owned subsidiary of fossil fuel companies,” May Boeve, executive director of 350.org said in a statement. “Now that Zinke's corrupt tenure is coming to an end, Congress must ensure that his successor actually protects our public lands, rather than sell them off to be mined, drilled, and polluted.”
News of Zinke’s departure, which Trump knew about for several days, per Bloomberg, comes in the wake of a major Cabinet shakeup. Trump announced Friday that budget director Mick Mulvaney would replace John Kelly as chief of staff.
Trump is on the hunt for Zinke’s replacement. The Interior Department’s second highest official, David Bernhardt, is expected to assume the role of acting secretary. A host of politicians, most from out West—who are typically favored for the position because of their familiarity with expansive federal lands—are in the running. Among them are former Wyoming congressperson Cynthia Lummis, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, Nevada Senator Dean Heller and Nevada attorney general Adam Laxalt, Bloomberg noted.