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Ryan Zinke, ‘Worst Interior Secretary in History,’ Resigns

Politics
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, shown here arriving in Washington, DC for the funeral of former President George H. W. Bush, resigned Saturday. Shawn Thew / Getty Images

Embattled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned Saturday, a month-and-a-half after an investigation into a potential conflict of interest involving oil-giant Halliburton was referred to the Justice Department, The Washington Post reported.


Zinke has been a controversial figure during his time at the Department of Interior (DOI), both for his ethically questionable use of his office and for his commitment to opening up public lands and waters to oil and gas drilling.

"Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation," President Donald Trump tweeted, announcing the resignation Saturday.

However, officials close to the situation told The Washington Post that Zinke had been given until the end of the year to either resign or be fired. Two officials further said Zinke's fall from grace occurred when the Halliburton investigation was passed on to the Justice Department. Zinke had met with Halliburton Chairman David Lesar while in office to discuss a real estate deal in Zinke's hometown that is owned by Lesar's son and could raise the value of nearby property belonging to a foundation started by Zinke and his wife. As a major energy producer, Halliburton is regulated by the DOI.

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

Environmental groups, who have clashed with Zinke over his decisions to shrink national monuments and expand offshore drilling, among other issues, celebrated his departure, while also sounding the alarm about his likely replacement, Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Bernhardt has worked as a lobbyist for oil and gas companies including Halliburton, and is likely to continue Zinke's agenda with fewer errors and obvious ethical missteps.

In this way he resembles Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who was seen as a "smarter" threat when he took over at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after Trump's first pick for administrator, Scott Pruitt, was also forced to resign after a buildup of ethics scandals.

"Zinke will go down as the worst Interior secretary in history," Center for Biological Diversity Executive Director Kierán Suckling said in a press release. "His slash-and-burn approach was absolutely destructive for public lands and wildlife. Allowing David Bernhardt to continue to call the shots will still be just as ugly. Different people, same appetite for greed and profit."

Bernhardt's ascension means the top two environmental agencies in the U.S. will now both be headed by former industry lobbyists, The Guardian pointed out.

Bernhardt took an ethics pledge saying he would wait until 2019 to have certain dealings with former clients, but the policies he has worked on—including a push to weaken how the Endangered Species Act is enforced—have still furthered their overall agendas. "It's not so much who has he helped. It's who hasn't he helped in industry so far," Bobby McEnaney of the Natural Resources Defense Council told The Guardian. "The notion that he could extricate himself from benefiting his former clients is impossible."
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