Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has often said that he’s not afraid of a fight.
In an interview with Breitbart News last month, the former Montana congressman and Navy SEAL dismissed reports that his days in the Trump administration were numbered as nothing more than rumors.
“I’ve been in a lot of firefights. I don’t mind getting shot at,” he said. “It is better to charge up a hill under fire than cower in a foxhole.”
But the intense scrutiny Zinke was certain to face next year from House Democrats wielding new oversight authority turned out to be a fight that he ― or perhaps the boss he’s been so loyal to ― wasn’t up for. President Donald Trump announced early Saturday that Zinke will resign at the end of the year.
Zinke’s final day as agency chief will be Jan. 2, The Associated Press reported Saturday, citing his resignation letter. That’s one day before Democrats take control of the House of Representatives. In recent weeks, some Democratic lawmakers made clear that they intended to investigate both Zinke’s personal conduct and policy decisions. He has faced nearly 20 federal investigations, one of which has been referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal violations.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the vice ranking member of the House oversight committee, told HuffPost last month that Zinke “is definitely going to be a subject of great interest” following a “complete desert of oversight under the Republican watch.” Since Trump took office, Republicans on the House oversight committee have denied more than 60 subpoena requests from Democratic members, including one related to Zinke’s reassignment of career employees.
And Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), one of Zinke’s fiercest critics in Washington and the incoming chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, told Outside Magazine and other outlets he was prepared to subpoena Zinke, if necessary, to obtain information.
In his resignation letter to Trump, Zinke wrote that “vicious and politically motivated attacks” against him had “created an unfortunate distraction,” according to the AP. And in a statement posted to Twitter, the ongoing agency chief said he “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,” Zinke added.
While it appears on the surface that Zinke’s departure was a personal decision, the AP and The New York Times reported Saturday that the White House forced him out over concerns about ongoing scandals, mounting scrutiny and negative press.
“This is no kind of victory, but I’m hopeful that it is a genuine turning of the page,” Grijalva said in a statement. “The next secretary should respect public desire for strong environmental standards and an end to corporate favoritism.“
There had been numerous signs that Zinke was possibly on his way out. Last month, Trump told reporters that Zinke is “doing an excellent job,” but that he would “take a look” at the allegations against him and soon make a decision about his future. Zinke’s personal attack last month against the congressman soon to wield oversight power over him only added to the speculation.
“It’s hard for him to think straight from the bottom of a bottle,” Zinke wrote of Grijalva after the Arizona lawmaker called for his resignation.
In recent interviews and public appearances, Zinke seemed to be working to maintain his boss’ approval. He told Bloomberg that Trump is “great to work for,” despite occasional calls at 2 a.m., and that “if you do your job, he supports you.” And Zinke repeatedly touted the administration’s effort to boost domestic fossil fuel production while continuing to ignore the scientific community’s dire warnings that we are running out of time to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and stave off catastrophic climate change.
“I’m proud of the fact that we’re the No. 1 oil and gas producer” in the world, he said at a Dec. 11 briefing to announce a proposed rollback of Obama-era clean water rules. “I’m proud of the fact that we’re going to get even better. Because when America prospers, the world is safer.”
Unsurprisingly, critics see his looming exit as a clear attempt to avoid scrutiny from House Democrats.
Stepping down now “may spare Zinke some embarrassment, but it will not reduce the need for oversight of the Administration’s poor stewardship at Interior,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said in a statement.
And in a blistering response, Austin Evers, executive director of the watchdog group American Oversight, reminded Zinke that resigning from the post doesn’t bring an end to probes by the Justice Department.
“For all his feigned swagger, Ryan Zinke lacked the courage or integrity to face accountability, skipping town as soon as he faced scrutiny,” Evers said. “Unfortunately for the American people, Zinke leaves behind a deputy secretary with similar ethical concerns. It is high time for the glare of sunlight to focus on Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt. We’ll see if he has the spine to answer questions that Zinke lacked.”
A former oil and gas lobbyist, Bernhardt has played a key role in many regulatory rollbacks during Zinke’s tenure at the agency.