US Interior Secretary to quit in latest high-profile exit

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been the subject of various investigations linked to his real estate holdings in his home state and his actions in office. He is also one of several members of President Donald Trump's Cabinet to come under fire over
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been the subject of various investigations linked to his real estate holdings in his home state and his actions in office. He is also one of several members of President Donald Trump's Cabinet to come under fire over expenditures.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Move will take away distraction of ethical issues dogging Ryan Zinke, let him avoid threat of legislative probe

WASHINGTON • United States Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will be leaving soon - the latest in a series of high-profile departures from an administration beset by turnover and alleged ethical failings.

Mr Zinke's exit will remove the distraction of the ethical issues that have dogged him - and that reportedly have annoyed President Donald Trump - but is unlikely to mark a shift away from the concerted environmental deregulation that took place during the secretary's tenure at the Interior Department.

"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," Mr Trump wrote on Twitter last Saturday, highlighting the fact that Mr Zinke's tenure was substantially longer than those of some other former top officials in the administration.

"Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our nation," the President said, adding that a replacement would be announced this week.

The interior secretary is responsible for overseeing conservation and mineral extraction on public land that, if stitched together, would be larger than Mexico.

Mr Zinke tied his departure to the burden of "false allegations" against him. "I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations. It is better for the President and Interior to focus on accomplishments rather than fictitious allegations," he said in a statement on Twitter last Saturday.

Mr Zinke, a former Montana congressman and Navy Seal, has been the subject of various investigations linked to his real estate holdings in his home state and his actions in office, making him a lightning rod for complaints from Democrats.

"Ryan Zinke was one of the most toxic members of the Cabinet in the way he treated our environment, our precious public lands, and the way he treated the govt like it was his personal honey pot," tweeted the Democrats' Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer.

BETTER TO LEAVE

I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations. It is better for the President and Interior to focus on accomplishments rather than fictitious allegations.

INTERIOR SECRETARY RYAN ZINKE, in a statement on Twitter, tying his departure to the burden of "false allegations".

Mr Zinke's planned departure will see him leave office before the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is seated, meaning he will avoid the threat of legislative investigation next month.

Along with Mr Trump's first environmental protection chief Scott Pruitt - who resigned in July amid a series of scandals over ethical lapses - Mr Zinke helped spearhead a presidential push to sharply relax environmental regulations and expand energy production.

The Zinke announcement came just a week after another impending high-profile departure - that of Mr Trump's chief of staff John Kelly.

Mr Trump last Friday tapped Mr Mick Mulvaney - the director of the Office of Management and Budget - to serve as chief of staff on an acting basis, setting him up to be the third person to hold the post since the President took office early last year.

A series of other top officials have left the Trump White House, including a secretary of state, two national security advisers and an attorney-general, as well as Mr Pruitt.

Mr Zinke is one of several members of Mr Trump's Cabinet to come under fire over expenditures, including reports that his department was spending nearly US$139,000 (S$191,000) to upgrade three sets of double doors in his office - a cost he later said he negotiated down to US$75,000.

He had been the subject of some 15 investigations, including one for taking a government security detail with him on a vacation trip to Turkey, according to The Washington Post.

 

He has also faced criticism over costly US Park Police helicopter flights last year that allowed him to return to Washington for a horseback ride with Vice-President Mike Pence, and several other flights on non-commercial aircraft.

Mr Zinke, who wore cowboy boots to the office and carried himself with a Western swagger, seemed to emulate Mr Trump when under fire, lashing back rather than retreating.

Last month, when a Democratic congressman said it was time for new leadership at the Interior Department, Mr Zinke suggested in a tweet that his critic had a drinking problem.

"It's hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle," he wrote, a comment that many in Washington thought crossed a line.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 17, 2018, with the headline 'US Interior Secretary to quit in latest high-profile exit'. Print Edition | Subscribe