Interior chief Zinke to leave administration

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Major California utility PG&E filing for bankruptcy after wildfires | Zinke hired at investment firm | Barclays to avoid most Arctic drilling financing Zinke takes job at investment firm Trump taps Commerce watchdog to be new Interior inspector general MORE will depart the administration amid growing controversy over allegations that he violated ethics rules, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump signs law guaranteeing back pay for federal workers Dems offer measure to raise minimum wage to per hour Congress can stop the war on science MORE announced Saturday.

Trump tweeted early Saturday that Zinke "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," Trump wrote.

He did not specify whether Zinke resigned or was fired, and said he will announce a new secretary next week. Whoever Trump nominates will likely have to go through Senate confirmation.

The Interior Department has not returned requests for comment from The Hill.

Zinke took to Twitter on Saturday afternoon to blame "false allegations" as a factor in his exit from the administration.

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"I love working for the President and am incredibly proud of all the good work we’ve accomplished together," he wrote. "However, after 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations."

David Bernhardt, the deputy Interior secretary, could take over as acting secretary in the interim.

Bernhardt has been the point person on numerous major Interior initiatives, such as changes to the Endangered Species Act and efforts to start drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He is widely expected to continue similar policies as Zinke, though perhaps with a different tone.

Zinke’s departure as head of the agency that oversees federal land, wildlife and American Indian relations comes as Democrats prepare to take over as the majority in the House, where they’ll have subpoena power for investigations.

Zinke, a former Republican congressman from Montana, has been the subject of more than a dozen investigations for his conduct in office, including scrutiny over a land deal involving a foundation he led and a company backed by David Lesar, chairman of oilfield services company Halliburton.

Interior’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) referred its probe into the deal to the Department of Justice for potential prosecution of conflict of interest laws. Zinke denied any wrongdoing.

That referral came at least a week before Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben CarsonBenjamin (Ben) Solomon CarsonTrump taps Commerce watchdog to be new Interior inspector general DOJ probing whether Zinke lied to Interior investigators: report Ex-Trump family aide pushed for White House liaison's firing: report MORE announced to staff that Suzanne Israel Tufts, a Trump political appointee at HUD, was going to replace Interior’s acting inspector general. The Hill first reported the shake-up in October. Interior later denied the report and HUD said it was a miscommunication.

Critics raised suspicions about the timing of the two events. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said he would like to probe the nature of the attempted OIG replacement when he likely takes control of the House Natural Resources Committee next year.

The timing “can’t be dismissed as merely a coincidence,” Grijalva told Bloomberg. “That’s why the oversight is so necessary.”

Grijalva further labeled Zinke "unfit" in an op-ed in early December and called for his ouster from the administration.

Zinke responded swiftly by attacking Grijalva personally on Twitter.

“It’s hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle,” Zinke tweeted.

“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,” he continued, with a reference to Tune Inn, a Capitol Hill bar Grijalva frequents.

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Trump told reporters on Nov. 7 that he was looking into the complaints against Zinke and expected to come to a conclusion in the near future.

When asked if he planed to fire the Interior head, he told reporters, “No.”

Since then, Zinke has kept a relatively low profile, traveling to California on the behest of the president to address increased forest management practices and the need to divert more water away from the ocean. His sentiments were highly criticized by local officials who instead largely blamed the fires on the effects of climate change.

Zinke has been no stranger to controversy since taking office in March 2017, with his list of investigations growing long.

The Interior head is facing a handful of other investigations by the OIG, including probes into whether he improperly blocked an American Indian casino project after a competitor’s lobbying. Recently he was cleared of an investigation into whether he broke ethics rules by redrawing a Utah national monument in a way that benefited a state lawmaker.

Earlier the OIG also found that Zinke violated department policies by letting his wife travel in government vehicles. Investigators largely cleared him of potential violations related to his official travel, including flying on a jet owned by an oil executive and using a private plane on a trip that included a political fundraiser.

His government spending also raised eyebrows after reports surfaced that he created battle coins to hand out to guests, asked for a specially designed secretarial flag to be flown above Interior’s headquarters when he was present and spent thousands of taxpayer dollars to replace his office’s balcony door.

He was also questioned for his use of charter flights, including one to Montana after a private engagement with the Las Vegas Golden Knights hockey team. An Interior ethics official signed off on the event and charter travel but was unaware that the owner of the hockey team was a former campaign donor. The OIG ruled that the use of the flight was avoidable.

Similar spending and ethics issues contributed to the departure of other former Trump administration officials, such as Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittDems blast EPA nominee at confirmation hearing Dem senator expresses concern over acting EPA chief's 'speedy promotion' Protesters disrupt Wheeler confirmation hearing MORE and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceTrump’s shifting Cabinet to introduce new faces Cummings sends 51 letters to White House, others requesting compliance with document requests Interior chief Zinke to leave administration MORE.

Trump announced Zinke's departure on Saturday amid a broader shake-up of his Cabinet and senior staff. Trump has nominated William Barr to become the new attorney general following Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard Sessions5 takeaways from Barr’s testimony AG pick Barr emphasizes independence from Trump Hillicon Valley: Trump AG pick signals new scrutiny on tech giants | Wireless providers in new privacy storm | SEC brings charges in agency hack | Facebook to invest 0M in local news MORE's ouster last month. Trump on Friday also named Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyFormer PepsiCo CEO being considered for World Bank chief post: report Ivanka Trump to help pick new World Bank president, but will not be one of the candidates Juan Williams: Trump's wall is founded on fiction MORE, the current White House budget chief, as acting chief of staff to replace John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, who is leaving at the end of the month.

Zinke, set to be the latest administration departure, had ruffled feathers with some of his policies, including one that reduced the boundaries of two national monuments. He also expanded offshore oil drilling, weakened protections for endangered species and reversed an Obama-era ban on elephant and lion hunting trophy imports.

Zinke was central to the Trump administration’s “Energy Dominance” agenda, which aims to dramatically increase production of oil, natural gas and coal, mainly by loosening regulations for production and use.

“I don’t ever want to be held hostage by a foreign entity over energy needs. I don’t want to send your kids, my kids, on foreign shores to fight for energy,” Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, told Fox Business Network in September. “And environmentally, it is best to produce energy in this country under reasonable regulation than to watch it get produced overseas with no regulation.”

One of Zinke’s first acts after joining the Cabinet was to repeal a moratorium the Obama administration had put on new coal-mining leases on federal land, which was implemented to enable a study of the climate change implications of mining. He later announced that Interior would be looking into expanding offshore drilling in federal waters — a move opposed by almost every coastal state.

Under his leadership, Interior repealed Obama-era standards meant to reduce methane pollution from oil and gas drilling on federal land, in addition to working to repeal regulations on fracking.

Zinke led the Trump administration’s review of national monument protections, which resulted in Trump’s decisions to slash the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s size by about half, and the Bears Ears National Monument by about 85 percent. Both protected areas are in southern Utah.

Interior under Zinke pursued numerous policies to change how the Endangered Species Act is implemented, including reducing protections for threatened species and making it harder to protect habitat. The department declared in a legal memo that it would not punish companies that “incidentally” kill or harm migratory birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

At the same time, Zinke sought to frame himself as a conservationist second only to former President Theodore Roosevelt, who used his position to protect natural areas.

“Interior represents the people. And when it comes to public lands, you look at the Teddy Roosevelt Arch when you enter the park: ‘For the benefit and enjoyment of the people,’ ” Zinke told a Montana radio show in October, referring to an entrance to Yellowstone National Park. “So it’s the people’s lands, we should take care of it.”

In October, Zinke oversaw the establishment of Trump’s first national monument, at Camp Nelson in Kentucky. He also worked to improve access to federal land by hunters and fishermen as part of a wide-ranging agenda to boost hunting. In a similar vein, he worked to create two controversial pro-hunting advisory committees filled predominantly by representatives of pro-gun and sport shooting groups.

Updated: 2:32 p.m.