How Ryan Zinke Went Full Trump To Get Ahead In Montana

The scandal-plagued Trump official has molted the last of his moderate feathers and is campaigning on a pledge to restore fossil fuel "energy dominance."
Ryan Zinke’s post-government honeymoon with big oil was predictable to anyone who closely followed his tenure at Interior. And his deep ties to planet-warming fossil fuels have taken center stage in the race for Montana’s new House seat.
Ryan Zinke’s post-government honeymoon with big oil was predictable to anyone who closely followed his tenure at Interior. And his deep ties to planet-warming fossil fuels have taken center stage in the race for Montana’s new House seat.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

In 1976, a freshman jock and self-proclaimed “health nut” named Ryan Zinke ran for student body president on a pledge to bring a fruit stand to his rural high school in Whitefish, Montana. It proved to be a winning platform.

But in an interview shortly after his triumph, Zinke acknowledged that his motivation was not so much giving his classmates a healthy alternative to the school’s popular candy machine.

“Mainly it was a campaign move to get elected,” the 15-year-old, 6-foot-3 football, wrestling and swimming star told The Missoulian newspaper.

Zinke has been doing and saying what it takes to get ahead ever since.

The former Navy SEAL, state senator, congressman and Trump administration Cabinet member is once again on the campaign trail, this time running for Montana’s newly created House seat. The prohibitive front-runner, Zinke is among a group of former high-ranking Trump administration officials with a shot at entering elected office despite their roles in an unpopular, disastrous administration and their loyalty to a former president who went to great lengths to try to overturn a fair, legal election.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who served as White House press secretary for President Donald Trump, is the favorite for Arkansas’ next governor. Scott Pruitt, Trump’s scandal-plagued Environmental Protection Agency chief, is running for Senate in Oklahoma.

Zinke is pitching himself as a “patriot” who can “save America” — from what he calls President Joe Biden’s “disastrous” energy and economic policies; from government overreach and the “COVID industrial complex”; from the “swamp” of lobbyists and influence in Washington, D.C., that his former boss vowed repeatedly to “drain” only to flood with industry alligators.

Zinke often jokes that the swamp was one of the few issues he and Trump disagreed on.

“I said, Mr. President, I’m secretary of the interior. There are some beautiful swamps in America,” Zinke chuckled during a January interview with the conservative podcast “District of Conservation.” “DC is not a swamp, it’s a sewer.”

Swamp or sewer or “cesspool,” Zinke is asking Montana voters to send him back to a place he has benefited immensely from, professionally and financially. Running as if he is unopposed, Zinke has largely walled himself off from both the press and his would-be constituents. He grants interviews almost exclusively to right-wing outlets and radio hosts, where he can count on softball questions, and did not show up to a single candidate forum ahead of Tuesday’s primary, including one last month in his hometown of Whitefish.

Zinke’s campaign did not respond to HuffPost’s request for an interview.

Despite his Trump credentials, Zinke is one of five candidates on the Republican ticket Tuesday — each of them trying to out-Trump the others. Zinke’s loyalty to Trump has paid off: The ex-president endorsed Zinke in the race, as did Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) and Sen. Steve Daines (R).

While there hasn’t been any polling on the race, currently gives Republicans a 10-point advantage to win the newly created congressional seat in November. In 2020, Trump won Montana by 16 points and Democrats lost every single statewide race.

Former President Donald Trump and former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke's anti-conservation legacy included carving more than 2 million acres from a pair of national monuments in Utah — the largest rollback of federal land protections in U.S. history.
Former President Donald Trump and former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke's anti-conservation legacy included carving more than 2 million acres from a pair of national monuments in Utah — the largest rollback of federal land protections in U.S. history.
Paul Morigi via Getty Images

Cashing In

Zinke is perhaps best known as a key soldier in Trump’s fossil fuel-centric energy crusade. He likes to portray himself as an “all-of-the-above” energy guy, someone who supports fossil fuels and renewables alike and doesn’t pick favorites when it comes to powering America. But his tenure at the helm of an agency that oversees roughly one-fifth of all land in the U.S. proved to be one massive gift to the fossil fuel industry — a top donor to his past and current congressional bids.

Despite repeated assurances to prioritize conservation and create a legacy that would rival that of his hero President Theodore Roosevelt, Zinke spent his days at the Interior Department loyally advancing Trump’s pro-extraction, anti-conservation agenda. He helped dismantle a slew of environmental protections and opened up millions of federal acres to drilling and mining. He dismissed and downplayed the threat of climate change and railed against “radical environmentalists.” By the end of his two-year stint, he sounded like a seasoned fossil fuel executive, at times referring to America’s oil and gas industry as “we.”

The industry took notice.

Weeks after resigning from the Cabinet post in January 2019 — or, reportedly, being forced out — under a cloud of ethics scandals, Zinke began cashing in.

First, he landed a job as senior vice president of Artillery One, a little-known blockchain investment firm, after a serendipitous flight to Atlanta during which he sat next to and wooed the company’s chief executive with stories of achieving so-called “energy independence.” Weeks after that, he and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski joined lobbying firm Turnberry Solutions as senior advisers. And in April of that year, Zinke was tapped as a board member of mining exploration company U.S. Gold Corp. and promised to “help make mining great again in America.”

It was not until nearly two years later, however, that the public learned just how much Zinke benefited from special interests following his departure from government, including companies he’d spent two years regulating. In November, months after it was due, Zinke’s campaign filed the financial disclosure that is required of all congressional candidates. It revealed Zinke was paid a combined $1.36 million for consulting and other services in the two years after leaving the Trump administration.

That included $460,000 from oil giant ConocoPhillips, $135,000 from U.S. Gold Corp., and at least $5,000 each from several fossil fuel interests, including pipeline company US Trinity, exploration and hydraulic fracturing company Oasis Petroleum, and Domestic Energy Producers Alliance, an Oklahoma-based oil and gas lobbying firm that’s headed by oil billionaire and rabid Trump supporter Harold Hamm.

“Certainly, his bread was buttered with petroleum jelly.”

- Evan Barrett, Democratic policy and economic adviser

Zinke also reported $410,000 in income from a company listed as “JVL Enterprises” of Dallas. HuffPost could find no active JVL Enterprises in Dallas. Reached by phone, James Van Lare, who owned a JVL Ventures LLC outside Dallas and donated to Zinke’s campaign in June 2021, told HuffPost his company is no longer active and that he did not pay Zinke for consulting services.

A review of Texas companies with “JVL” in their names leaves little doubt it was JVL Advisors, LLC, an oil and gas investment firm in Houston, that Zinke consulted for. The company’s founder and managing partner, John Lovoi, sits on the board of several other fossil fuel companies, including Roan Resources, Epsilon Energy, Helix Energy Solutions and Dril-Quip.

Lovoi did not respond to HuffPost’s requests for comment.

Zinke’s post-government honeymoon with big oil was predictable to anyone who closely followed his tenure at Interior. And his deep ties to planet-warming fossil fuels have taken center stage in the race for Montana’s new House seat, which was created last year and covers the western part of the state.

Monica Tranel, one of three Democrats running to take on Zinke in November’s general election, wrote a letter to ConocoPhillips in April urging the company to drop Zinke from its payroll as a “symbolic” gesture of “belt-tightening” as Montanans struggle to afford high gas prices. Heather Swift, a spokesperson for Zinke’s campaign, fired back on Twitter, saying that Zinke had ended his relationship with the company months earlier to focus on the campaign.

A ConocoPhillips spokesperson confirmed to HuffPost that Zinke was paid for consulting and advisory services until December 2021, but did not elaborate on the specifics of Zinke’s work for the company.

That means that for approximately eight months after launching his campaign in April 2021, Zinke was collecting a hefty paycheck from one of the nation’s largest oil companies while running for public office on a vow to restore so-called “energy dominance.” During that time, Zinke often took to social media to complain about rising gas prices, peddle industry talking points and wish lists, demand more drilling amid rapidly worsening, fossil fuel-driven planetary warming, and even publicly ponder absurd, oil-friendly questions like “What happens when the wind runs out?”

On social media, Zinke frequently blames Biden for pain at the pump, ignoring the fact that domestic gas prices are inherently tied to a global market and that oil majors, including his recent client ConocoPhillips, have raked in record profits amid high prices.

In an August 2021 interview with the right-wing Breitbart News, Zinke talked about the need for Americans to “rally together” and “learn to work together,” then slammed Biden’s energy policies as “anti-American,” bragged of the Trump administration’s efforts to boost oil and gas production and applauded American oil companies as “good players.” The interview allowed Zinke to plug and solicit donations for his congressional campaign, but included no mention that his clients at the time included ConocoPhillips.

Evan Barrett, a longtime Democratic policy and economic adviser in Montana who is now assisting with Tranel’s campaign, told HuffPost it is egregious that Zinke was collecting paychecks from the oil industry — “certainly, his bread was buttered with petroleum jelly,” he said — while simultaneously campaigning against the high gas prices that have led to skyrocketing oil industry profits. ConocoPhillips tallied $8.1 billion in profits in 2021, its most since 2013, and a stunning $5.8 billion in the first quarter of 2022.

“If you’re running for Congress and asking people to be for you because you want to be their servant while you are getting paid as an adviser to a profiteering oil company, there’s some question about where your allegiance lies,” Barrett said.

As with previous campaigns, Zinke has collected tens of thousands of dollars in donations from the fossil fuel industry. Through mid-May, he raised nearly $3 million, far more than any other candidate in the race. More than $124,000 of that came from industry employees and political action committees, according to Center for Responsive Politics data.

Zinke’s largest donors include Cox Oil, oil and gas investment firm Colt Ventures, Hauptman Oil and Double Eagle Energy. Harold Hamm, the founder and chair of Continental Resources, gave Zinke $2,900. And several of Zinke’s former Interior colleagues — who, much like him, have spun through the revolving door to land jobs in industry or lobbying — have also supported his campaign.

Zinke is leaning hard into his energy bona fides. He boasts often about how he and Trump made the U.S. “energy independent.” In a statement endorsing Zinke for the seat, Trump wrote that under Zinke’s leadership, “the U.S. achieved Energy Dominance, increased federal energy revenues, and responsibly opened federal acreage for energy production.”

Zinke hasn’t defined what “energy independent” means; if he’s talking about a nation free of any imported petroleum products, the U.S. never achieved that under Trump.

“Want to make gas cheap again, vote Zinke,” he wrote in an April post while filling a 30-gallon, gas-guzzling pickup truck with premium gasoline.

From Prius To Pump Jack

Along with restoring the U.S. as an oil and gas juggernaut — it’s unclear how he plans to do that as one of 435 members of the House — Zinke says his bid is about taking on division across the country. He cited those political fissures as his primary motivation for running, calling it “the biggest threat facing the country.” In other words, he’s campaigning on a pledge to unite Montana and the country around conservative values — his values.

But those who have closely watched Zinke’s 14-year ascent up the political ranks say those values have been a moving target, his views shifting ever farther to the right as Montana’s political landscape changed and the Republican Party became handcuffed to Trumpian ideology.

Political experts and observers in Big Sky Country that HuffPost talked to — a number of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly — described Zinke as an “opportunist,” a “political chameleon” and someone “you have trouble figuring out what he believes.”

“He morphs into whatever he needs to, whatever is politically advantageous,” said Jayson O’Neill, a Montana resident, conservation consultant and former aide to former Democratic Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

In 2008, after 23 years in the Navy SEALS, Zinke retired and returned to Montana to launch a political career. That year, he ran and was elected to represent his hometown of Whitefish and parts of Flathead County in the Montana state Senate — a seat previously held by Democrat Dan Weinberg.

Located in Montana’s mountainous northwest, Whitefish is a resort ski town and a gateway to popular Glacier National Park. Politically, it is a blueish island in a darkening sea of red.

Zinke presented himself as a moderate, conservation-minded Republican and public land champion in the mold of Roosevelt. He approached the head of the Montana chapter of the League of Conservation Voters and assured him that he “wasn’t one to buckle under pressure,” the Flathead Beacon reported, and ultimately earned a rare endorsement from the environmental group.

“I am about jobs. I am about conservation,” Zinke said in an interview shortly after taking office, in which he talked about his fondness for Roosevelt.

“I think he got the word from someone that he better trim his sails on environmental stuff if he wanted to win a Republican nomination. He appeared to do that.”

- Chuck Johnson, retired journalist who covered Montana politics for decades

As a freshman state senator, Zinke drove a red Toyota Prius. He sponsored bills and backed legislation that found little support among hard-line conservatives. And in 2010, he signed on to a letter urging President Barack Obama and congressional leaders to ”pass comprehensive clean energy jobs and climate change legislation.” The letter called climate and the energy transition “America’s new space race,” and highlighted the national security and economic risks of failing to take aggressive action to confront the threat.

Zinke found himself on stable footing with local environmentalists. In its 2011 report card, Montana Conservation Voters gave Zinke a 60% score — a six-point improvement over his 2009 grade and the highest mark of any Republican that session — and applauded him for “standing up for clean water and energy security in Montana.” Similarly, the Montana Environmental Information Center gave Zinke a 53% score. That session, Zinke voted against a bill that would have weakened the Montana Environmental Policy Act and was just one of two Republicans to oppose a referendum aimed at weakening Montanans’ constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.

But Zinke had his sights set on higher office, and it didn’t take long for him to start molting his moderate feathers.

“I think he got the word from someone that he better trim his sails on environmental stuff if he wanted to win a Republican nomination,” said Chuck Johnson, a retired journalist who covered Montana politics for more than four decades. “He appeared to do that.”

“He started realizing that in order to get ahead in the Republican Party, he had to be more conservative, especially to win a primary,” said another longtime Montana political observer who requested anonymity.

Montana U.S. House candidate and former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke speaks on May 13, 2022, in Butte, Montana.
Montana U.S. House candidate and former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke speaks on May 13, 2022, in Butte, Montana.
AP Photo/Matthew Brown

In 2012, Zinke ran unsuccessfully for Montana’s lieutenant governorship on a ticket with gubernatorial candidate and eccentric businessman Neil Livingstone. As Mother Jone reported, Livingstone’s campaign bio boasted of having partied with pirates, “dined at gangster clubs in Moscow and in the back rooms of Georgian and Uzbek restaurants with members of the Russian Mafia” and being “stalked by terrorists and Nazis in Argentina.”

Livingstone never stood much chance of winning. And some saw Zinke’s decision to join the ticket as little more than an opportunity to boost his name recognition and test the waters for statewide office. In doing so, however, Zinke undermined his brand as a defender of America’s public lands. He and Livingstone each signed the Montana Constitutional Governance Pledge, an extreme document that, among other things, supported handing over control of federal lands to states and dismissed the federal agencies that Zinke would later oversee as “bureaucracies that have sprung up to enforce the unlawful seizure of our native land and its resources.”

That pledge was the beginning of a slow but steady shift away from the moderate Republican unafraid to buck his own party — a shift that Zinke has managed to convince many hasn’t taken place.

Barrett, the Democratic adviser, was working for Schweitzer when Zinke was a state senator. He said he and Zinke had a positive working relationship, that Zinke was pragmatic, someone who would reach across the aisle to get things done, and that he considered him a “bit of a friend.” He subcribes to the theory that Zinke chose not to run for a third term in the state Senate in 2012 because, by then, the Republican Party in Flathead County had moved far to his right and there was concern his moderate record would not survive a primary challenge.

In 2014, two years after stepping away from politics, Zinke launched his first successful bid for the U.S. House of Representatives. Barrett said it quickly became clear that Zinke had himself moved to the right. During one campaign stop in January 2014, he famously called Hillary Clinton the “Antichrist” and the “real enemy.”

“I can’t say whether that was calculated or genuine, whether he’d drunk the Kool-Aid or was only pretending he’d drunk the Kool-Aid,” Barrett said of Zinke’s shift.

Either way, it worked.

Over his two-plus years in Congress, Zinke emerged as a reliable pro-industry, anti-environment vote. He tallied an abysmal 4% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters; a record that no doubt appealed to Trump and his team.

“I can’t say ... whether he’d drunk the Kool-Aid or was only pretending he’d drunk the Kool-Aid.”

- Barrett

Still, Zinke’s nomination to lead the Interior Department found support among hunting, fishing and wildlife conservation groups. Many saw Zinke as the most palatable name on a shortlist that included oil tycoon Forrest Lucas and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and they hung their hats on Zinke’s decision in 2016 to resign as a delegate to the Republican National Convention over the party’s support for transferring control of federal lands to states. Zinke ultimately sailed through the Senate confirmation process, with 17 members of the Democratic caucus voting in support.

After being sworn in, Zinke arrived for his first day as Interior chief wearing a 10-gallon cowboy hat and riding a horse named Tonto and pledged to “faithfully uphold Teddy Roosevelt’s belief that our treasured public lands are ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.’” In the end, however, his legacy was not one of conservation stewardship, but of catering to extractive industries, gutting safeguards for the environment and imperiled species and championing the largest rollback of federal land protections in U.S. history.

Along the way, he racked up nearly 20 federal investigations into his conduct and policy decisions, lost the support of many in the outdoor sporting and conservation community and drew comparisons to Regan-era Interior Secretary James Watt, widely considered among the most anti-environment Cabinet appointees in U.S. history.

As Theodore Roosevelt IV, a great-grandson of the president, put it in an interview with HuffPost shortly before Zinke’s resignation in late 2018: Zinke’s “bad angels won out.”

Fighting Fire With Fire

Now back on the campaign trail, Zinke is clinging to his Roosevelt-style brand while embracing Trumpian “America First” jingoism and painting himself a victim of a coordinated, left-wing attack.

A proud veteran, Zinke talks about his own political journey as if he’s still on a battlefield. He likes to joke about how serving as a SEAL was easier than leading the Interior Department because “when people shot at you as a SEAL, you could shoot back.” He boasts often about how he’d “rather charge up a hill under fire than cower in a foxhole.” And The Associated Press reported that at a recent Republican dinner in Butte, Zinke dubbed himself the “battleship” of the District 1 race and all other candidates as “canoes.”

“Everybody wants to shoot at the battleship. Nobody shoots at the canoes,” he said.

In Zinke’s mind, everyone is out to get him — political opponents, the media and Washington itself. In interviews with right-wing media, he frequently rants about “the resistance movement,” “entrenched bureaucracy,” the so-called “Deep State” and “cancel culture” he says he faced in D.C., including among Interior Department staff.

“When you drain the swamp, it exposes serpents. And they attack!” he said in a recent campaign-style video posted to Instagram. “As interior secretary, I got an extra dose of fake news and false charges. And now, running for Congress, it’s happening again.”

In the video, Zinke goes on to falsely claim, as he so often has, that the federal probes cleared him of any wrongdoing and that “you won’t read that in the fake news.” In a February report, Interior’s internal watchdog concluded that Zinke violated ethics rules and misused his office with his continued involvement in a real estate project in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, and that he lied to investigators about it.

Zinke’s campaign dismissed the report as a “political hit job” by the Biden administration, despite the fact that it was issued by Mark Greenblatt, the Trump-nominated inspector general of the agency.

Some of his scandals have been more anodyne. At Interior, he revived an obscure military tradition, insisting that a special flag fly above the agency’s headquarters each time he walked through the door — a practice that his team comically claimed was “a major sign of transparency.” And despite his perceived image as an avid hunter and angler, Zinke showed up to a 2017 outing with Outside magazine correspondent and Montana resident Elliot Woods with his fly reel rigged backward.

More recently, Zinke has come under fire for his ties to California. Politico reported last month that his wife had designated a home she inherited in Santa Barbara, California, as her primary residence — a revelation that became immediate fuel for one of his main Republican primary opponents, former state Sen. Al Olszewski.

For all his talk of draining the swamp, Zinke has become a face of Trump-era corruption — someone who was plagued by scandal, prioritized the interests of powerful industries and ultimately made a small fortune working for those same special interests immediately after leaving office.

And for all his lamenting about division and anger being “the greatest threat facing America,” Zinke is running an increasingly divisive campaign. He refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency. He’s worked to drum up fear that the Biden administration threatens to destroy the country and Montanans’ way of life.

“In naval terminology, it’s heading to Davy Jones’s locker,” he told Breitbart in January. He’s accused Democrats in Washington of “smoking crack” and posted a picture of him branding a calf with the words “Let’s Go Branding,” a cowboy twist on the popular conservative phrase meaning “Fuck Joe Biden.” And he’s dismissed Americans who got vaccinated against COVID-19 as “little communists.”

Whereas promises of fresh fruit and invoking Roosevelt proved to be winning tactics for Zinke in the past, today he’s betting that talk of so-called “energy dominance,” sidling up to a former president who tried to overthrow democracy, and attacking the press and anyone who doesn’t share his views will be enough to stamp his ticket back to Washington.

He may very well be right.

Whitney Tawney, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, the environmental group that endorsed Zinke back in 2008, said watching Zinke’s rise to power has been “disappointing” and “disheartening.” Once someone Montanans could count on to walk the walk on conservation, he has, over time, “turned his back on” voters and prioritized lining his own pockets, she said.

Tawney compared Zinke to the so-called “Copper Kings,” a trio of rival industrialists that ruled Butte, Montana in the late 1800s.

“Unfortunately, he sort of forgot who his real bosses were,” Tawney said.

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