The president has announced he would be rolling more heads than that of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions after the midterms. Who’s the next to go?
Trump has already said that Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, who took babies from nursing mothers, is on her way out, despite doing Trump’s bidding at the border. Former Marine General John Kelly, perpetually on the to-fire list, tried to get off it by standing at attention as Trump sent troops to the border to excite his base. No dice.
Trump told Fox’s Chris Wallace that while Kelly is good at some things, the chief of staff is very bad at others. In a world that punished hypocrisy, Ivanka Trump would move to the top of the list of those to be banished—or locked up—for using private email. Not a chance.
The next to go could be Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. When word of a Justice Department criminal investigation surfaced a few weeks ago, there were numerous guesses as to which scandal had been referred. It could be taking away gambling licenses from Connecticut Indian tribes after Zinke was lobbied by MGM. More likely it’s a land deal Zinke keeps working on despite obvious conflicts.
His dream, it seems, is for a mini-Disneyland of shops, restaurants and hotels to arise around a local park in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana—a vision shared by his wife and by David Lesar, the chair of Halliburton, a driller under Interior’s purview. According to Politico, Zinke’s wife, Lola, signed papers to begin construction of a parking lot.
Because the Zinkes may profit from all this, Zinke clocked another IG investigation, but he’s a slacker by the standards of EPA’s former chief, Scott Pruitt, who flew first class when he couldn’t fly private and had a sweetheart deal with a lobbyist who owned the condo he “rented.” As the count of inquiries has grows to 18 now, according to the nonpartisan conservation group Center for Western Priorities, the IG told Congress it needed more staff to handle the incoming.
On the criminal referral to Justice, Trump said that he "certainly would not be happy” if there was one, which sounded ominous, until he added “but Zinke’s done a very good job as secretary,” which sounds like his preference to believe Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman because he likes the guy more than he likes his own CIA.
It may take something ridiculously wacky, like Pruitt sending staff in search of a used Trump mattress, to embarrass Trump into firing Zinke.That’s not out of the question. The file labeled ethics violations features $139,000 for new doors fit for a Halliburton exec to walk through.
Or it could be a $12,375 trip on an oil executive’s private jet from Las Vegas to his home in Montana after a speech (not about saving the whales) given as a favor to a political donor, part of his practice of tacking on private affairs to the public one he conjured up for the next day to justify the taxpayer picking up the tab for the whole thing.
There was the $6,250 helicopter flight to meet Vice President Mike Pence for an afternoon on horseback, and the curious case of a no-bid contract, since cancelled, being awarded to a tiny Whitefish company to provide disaster relief to Puerto Rico after the storms. Infecting all of this is Zinke sometimes using a Yahoo account, not a government one as required, which is about to get its very own inquiry.
Routinely, Zinke forgets to put meetings with industry on his public schedule, one in particular with lobbyists for gun-manufacturer Proof Research, where he was recently a shareholder. But he remembered to file a request that his wife be considered a “volunteer” so that she could join him for free on government aircraft. It was denied.
As for governing, despite donning a Stetson and riding a horse to work on his first day, Zinke is no Teddy Roosevelt. He oversees Interior as if he’s Secretary of Energy, the protector of fossil fuels, not Interior, the protector of public lands from fossil fuels. With fires raging out west (Zinke, like Trump, is blaming “radical environmentalist groups” for, apparently, not raking the forest floor), multiple hurricanes in the southeast, and water daily lapping at steps of hotels along the Florida coast, the journal Nature Climate Change published a paper this week foretelling a world that by 2100 will have six climate-related crises simultaneously with no way to escape, whether in a Chevy Volt or Mercedes, whether from a trailer park or gated community.
No one will be spared. Yet Zinke has made climate change disappear from Interior’s mission, omitting it from strategic planning and other documents, and suppressing or pushing out up to 50 staffers, among them climate scientists and geologists, who don’t agree with him. I’ve lost count which IG inquiry that is.
Zinke’s philosophy, as monitored by the Wilderness Society, is simple: he wants to open public lands to mining, drilling, paving over, and building on. Trump asked Zinke to review 27 national monuments, and Zinke obligingly found six to shrink and open to mining, including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. He supported logging in the Cascades and along the California-Oregon border. He created the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee to help corporate interests profit from the great outdoors. He halted a study into the health hazards of mountaintop mining.
Zinke inadvertently revealed he knows how damaging his opening up coastal waters to drilling is when he immediately granted Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott a temporary exemption so it wouldn’t hurt his campaign for the Senate. Those who want to keep the spotted owl and bearded seal should have known it would only be a matter of time before Zinke got around to endangering endangered species, despite their being protected since 1973 by the Endangered Species Act, a bipartisan triumph passed overwhelmingly.
He’s proposed regulatory changes to cripple the act by limiting what constitutes a threatened species or habitat, and not weighing the value that species like the wood stork and Florida panther provide to saving the Everglades. As for the caribou, a private land swap executed by Interior is the first step toward allowing a road through Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, wild no longer. He’s begun removing obstacles to mining and its inevitable toxic runoff next to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, said to be the most-visited wilderness area in America.
There are little tells of how Zinke feels about his mandate. He told a Senate committee this spring that Every Kid in a Park, which takes children on outings to the great outdoors for about $100,000 a year, was partly responsible for the Park Service’s $12 million maintenance backlog. As no sacrifice is asked of private interests, he ended the six fee-free days per year at some national parks and wants to raise entrance fees at 17 others.
In a speech to an oil industry group, Zinke complained about having to protect what President Richard Nixon called “an irreplaceable part of our natural heritage,” preferring to open his pricey new doors to a smaller cohort who want to plunder public lands. The black bear gives way to black ops.
Like Pruitt, Zinke could one day push Trump over the edge with the accumulation of his presumptions: striking a coin with his name on it, placing animal trophies on his wall, designing his own flag, posting pictures of himself rocking Make America Great American Socks (Trump might forgive that). Why does he presume to fly around like he’s president? Because Trump would have done it himself, he likely saw the morning on horseback for the stunt it was.
In that same speech, Zinke blamed the resistance of 30 percent of his employees who were not “loyal to the flag” for not moving faster to remove regulations and issue new, permissive ones. What flag is he talking about? It sounds like the one he orders to be raised and lowered by staff depending on whether Prince Zinke is in residence. The next embarrassing headline, Trump might notice Zinke is all about saluting himself, not honoring the flag that flies over all of us.