Interior Decorator: Zinke’s Push To Redesign Flags And Accessorize With Dead Animals

“You can’t make this stuff up."

WASHINGTON — A week after taking over the Department of the Interior, Ryan Zinke inquired about redesigning the agency’s flag, according to internal emails HuffPost has obtained.

The department flag is emblazoned with a bison and has gone largely unchanged for a century. The emails indicate that Zinke wanted to redesign the flags and make them bigger, so that neither his secretarial flag nor the agency flag would be smaller than the United States flag that flies atop the Interior Department’s headquarters on C Street in Washington, D.C. The emails do not indicate how he wants to redesign the flag.

The emails shine more light on Zinke’s revival of an obscure military flag-flying tradition. As The Washington Post reported last month, when Zinke enters the building, “a security staffer takes the elevator to the seventh floor, climbs the stairs to the roof and hoists a special secretarial flag.” When he goes home, the flag comes down.

Zinke was sworn in March 1 and arrived at his post the following morning sporting a cowboy hat and riding a horse. The flag inquiries by the former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL were part of a broader revamping at Interior that included outfitting his office with a slew of taxidermied creatures and a bronze bust of his hero Teddy Roosevelt.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke brought in a taxidermy menagerie to decorate his executive suite.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke brought in a taxidermy menagerie to decorate his executive suite.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The redesign seems to have left Interior staff scrambling and scratching their heads.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” Joe Nassar, director of Interior’s Office of Facilities and Administrative Services, wrote to several other Interior employees a few weeks later, referring to the pending delivery of a stuffed bobcat.

One week after Zinke took office, Elena Gonzalez, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for technology, information and business services, sent an email to Douglas Domenech, then a senior adviser to the new secretary, addressing several flag-related queries.

“We think the Interior flags can be any size so long as they are not larger than the American flag,” Gonzalez wrote, adding that Nassar would look into current flag proportions. “I am not sure whether the Secretary can re-design either his flag or the Interior flag. Happy to find out if you need that information as well.”

“Great,” replied Domenech, who was later nominated and confirmed as Interior’s assistant secretary for Insular Areas. He requested the chapter of the agency manual on displaying and flying flags and wrote, “Yes find out if [Zinke] can change the DOI flag and how.”

In an email the next day, Gonzalez wrote that the questions about redesigning flags were “taking a bit longer to answer.”

“Apparantly [sic] not a common question,” she wrote.

Screenshot/Department of the Interior

The Interior Department first adopted a flag in 1917; the first appearance of the flag’s distinctive bison. Over the last 100 years, the bison seal, and presumably the flag, have twice been replaced — first with an eagle in the 1920s and later to an image of hands holding the sun, mountains and water in the late 1960s, but both times reverted to the bison. The current flag design appears to have gone largely unchanged since the 1960s, according to “The Flag Book of the United States.”

If the flagpole atop the Interior building is any indication, Zinke has thus far been unsuccessful in his bid to replace the flags with ones that have his own touch. Interior does appear to have ordered larger flags, at least, ensuring that Zinke’s personal flag will not be dwarfed by Old Glory. When Zinke is in the building, three proportional flags fly atop the building.

In a March 9 email, Nassar brought Domenech up to speed on the dimension of the flags atop headquarters — at the time, the U.S. flag was significantly larger than Interior’s — and said he “checked with several folks and no one recalls any Secretary (at least from the 1980′s until now) having the Secretarial flag flown from the roof.”

The flag for the Interior Department’s deputy secretary, bottom, flies above agency headquarters in Washington. The middle flag represents the department.
The flag for the Interior Department’s deputy secretary, bottom, flies above agency headquarters in Washington. The middle flag represents the department.
Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Charles Spain, a co-director of the Houston-based Flag Research Center, said it is unusual for an agency flag to be the same size as the U.S. flag. And, Spain said, it seems as if President Donald Trump and several members of his Cabinet are “enamored with military trappings.”

“I think there’s more of a military bent toward the use of flags than we’ve seen in previous administrations,” he told HuffPost.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift and several people involved in the email exchanges did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment Monday. Nassar was reached by phone but declined to comment and directed HuffPost to Swift.

Along with entertaining unconventional flag requests, Interior staff worked through March to get the agency chief’s office to his liking, emails show. The effort involved shuffling around a huge grizzly bear, mounting the heads of a bison and elk directly into the office’s carved oak paneling, and accommodating the arrival of a $1,749 leather couch from California that included “white-glove delivery service.”

“A large stuffed grizzly will arrive at [main Interior building] today at approximately noon,” Daniel Jorjani, a former Koch brothers adviser appointed in May to the position of principal deputy solicitor, wrote to seven agency employees March 21. “If possible, please make sure it clears security and is taken to the Secretary’s office. He would like it placed in the the corner where his collection of Navy SEAL knives are currently located. He would like that table moved to the other side of the room, next to where the doors lead out of his office into the main corridor.”

Screenshot/Department of the Interior

Less than a month after the bear showed up, it was temporarily moved to allow for artwork to be hung on the wall behind it.

Mounting the heads of a trophy elk and a bison Zinke has named “Rosie” proved onerous. First, a delay in transporting them from his old congressional office left Zinke “not extremely happy,” as Nassar put it. Once the heads arrived at Interior, an assistant apparently suggested putting them in a cabinet or display case, but Zinke was “not keen on that idea,” according to Nassar, insisting they be mounted on the wall. Employees then tried to outfit the heads with D-rings in a final “attempt to preserve the historic woodwork,” but the bison proved “too top heavy,” wrote Diana Ziegler, director of the Interior Museum. The heads were ultimately installed directly into the wall.

In late March came the arrival of a stuffed bobcat, a piece from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s collection.

“To end the week on a somewhat light note, the ‘bobcat has landed’.,” Nassar joked the Friday the stuffed animal was delivered. “Luckily, the Secretary decided to not hang it on a wall and he said the taxidermy journey is done. Then as I was leaving, I was told a puma may be showing up so maybe the journey is only over for this week.”


A self-proclaimed “Teddy Roosevelt guy,” Zinke has also adorned his office with items commemorating the 26th president of the United States.

Among the dead creatures is a black-and-white portrait of the former Montana congressman’s hero. Zinke and his wife purchased it at an estate sale in Indiana, and Teddy now hangs neatly above his office fireplace. A few feet away, below the century-year-old bison mount, is a 10-pound bronze bust of “the conservation president.”

The bust is one of two that Sagamore Hill National Historic Site had reproduced in 2001, museum curator Susan Sarna told HuffPost. It is cast from an original sculpture by American artist Gutzon Borglum, which he used as a model for the face of Roosevelt blasted into Mt. Rushmore.

The original bust of Roosevelt has been in Sagamore Hill’s collection since the site became a national park in 1963, Sarna said. It is unclear when exactly it was made. The copy — which the Interior Department paid $864.75 to have shipped from New York to Washington — is on loan to the secretary’s office for three years. It has been loaned to Interior secretaries and exhibited at both the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum and the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum.

Zinke talks often about his fondness for Roosevelt, describing himself as an “unapologetic admirer and disciple.” But his actions — in particular his recommendation that Trump shrink or otherwise weaken several national monuments designated under the Antiquities Act, which Roosevelt signed into law in 1906 and used to establish and protect 18 national monuments — have caused many in the conservation and outdoor sporting communities to turn on him.

Equally as frustrated with Zinke’s leadership are many of the people now working under him, current and former agency employees say. Scientist turned whistleblower Joel Clement, who resigned from his agency post citing Zinke’s “poor leadership,” told HuffPost last month that morale at the agency is “in the toilet.”

A current Interior official who requested anonymity to comment candidly echoed Clement and said the only effort they’ve seen from Zinke to boost morale has been his establishment of “Doggy Days,” when employees are allowed to bring their dogs to work. In a similar move, Zinke had installed a “Big Buck Hunter” arcade game in the cafeteria, a bizarre attempt to highlight the contributions the hunting and fishing communities make to conservation.

“You’re not going to make real dents in negative morale with that type of thing,” the current official told HuffPost. “It comes with people feeling like their daily work is respected, that they are valued as employees. That the work that they care about and do is also cared about by the people in charge. And I think that’s the biggest thing that employees do not feel right now.”

The emails HuffPost has obtained detailing Zinke’s arrival at the agency do little to paint a picture of a happy workforce. And the feeling is apparently mutual. “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag,” Zinke told an oil industry group in September.

One person Zinke did quickly earn his wings with is his boss.

At a signing ceremony in April, Trump praised Zinke for the “incredible job” he is doing. But instead of noting Zinke’s speedy efforts to advance the administration’s fossil fuel-friendly energy policy, Trump pointed to some exterior landscaping he did at the Lincoln Memorial early in his tenure.

He never overlooks the details. He’s a detail person,” Trump said. “Soon after he was confirmed, we had a snow storm — big one.” (It was less than 3 inches.) “And he was out there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial shoveling the snow all by himself. And he’s a strong guy. He did a good job. He did a very, very good job. But we’re proud of him.”

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