Embattled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is finding himself with fewer defenders inside or outside the Trump administration, as one-time supporters in industry drift away and his sagging popularity in his native Montana appears to be keeping him off the campaign trail.
The pileup of ethics investigations into the former Navy SEAL and congressman is not only placing Zinke in potential legal jeopardy. It’s also alienating many of the same industry groups and Trump allies who welcomed his arrival at the Interior Department just 19 months ago, according to people who requested anonymity to protect their relationships with the administration.
Many of those same people are predicting that Zinke will step aside and let Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist and experienced bureaucratic infighter, fill the agency’s top slot.
That would almost certainly bring no change in the Interior Department’s support for President Donald Trump’s policies of loosening restrictions on drilling, fracking and mining on federal lands and waters. But it could mean fewer embarrassing headlines about lavish travel expenses, taxpayer-funded helicopter trips and personal development deals involving the chairman of Halliburton.
“People are assuming that there is something there and that Bernhardt is going to step into the role,” one former administration official said.
One person in the oil and gas industry told POLITICO: “I think he’s a total walking disaster.”
Neither the White House nor the Interior Department responded to requests for comment about Zinke’s status on Friday. Earlier this week, news reports said the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General had referred one of its Zinke investigations to the Justice Department.
Even before those developments, a June poll funded by the conservation group Center for Western Priorities showed that Zinke’s approval rating in Montana — which he once represented as its sole House member — was 36 percent, with 49 percent disapproving. Focus groups found that Montana residents did not disagree with all of Trump’s public lands policies but vehemently disliked the Interior Department’s shrinking of protected acreage at several national monuments, including the Bear’s Ears monument in Utah.
“It wasn’t like everything was unpopular,” said Brian Gottlieb, a Republican pollster who conducted the survey on behalf of the nonprofit. “But the public land thing was extreme. When his name came up, they would say, ‘Was he the guy who did that Utah thing?’”
Zinke has been notably absent from campaigning in his home state in recent months, even though the race between Montana Republican challenger Matt Rosendale and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester is one of the key races that will decide the balance of power in Washington. Zinke has not joined Trump at any of the president’s three rallies in Montana since the summer, and he does not appear on the schedule for the president’s rally Saturday in Bozeman, Mont.
Zinke also did not join last week’s Montana campaign swing by Donald Trump Jr., who just two years ago had supported his bid for Interior secretary.
Instead, Zinke was spending Friday in Alabama, a state with no battleground federal races during this election cycle.
Zinke faces several investigations into matters that include his handling of tribal casino permits in Connecticut and his ties to a Montana land deal — first reported by POLITICO — that involves the chairman of Halliburton, a major oil services company that stands to benefit from Interior’s expansion of drilling leases.
The investigations have become a distraction, and some people following the issue said Zinke hasn’t done much to better his lot.
Zinke made a risky gambit in recent months, pitching himself to the White House as a potential replacement for outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley despite facing multiple investigations into his conduct, according to a source familiar with the situation. Though the president never seriously considered him as a candidate, the person said, the move caused his opponents inside the White House to start chattering about the investigations.
Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were among the people who opposed moving Zinke to the U.N., a former White House official told POLITICO.
Spokespeople for Zinke also may have done him no favors last week when they pointed the finger at the White House and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson for a bizarre episode involving a scuttled attempt to put a political appointee in charge of Interior’s Inspector General’s Office.
Even before that, the ice beneath Zinke’s feet appeared to be thinning with senior White House staff. CNN reported in March that Zinke was one of several Cabinet members called into the White House for lectures about the “optics” of their ethics flaps.
On the other hand, Zinke has been a favorite of Trump’s, the former White House official said, with the same level of presidential support that former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt enjoyed before he finally resigned in July. It might take a similarly long stretch of scandals, serious allegations and negative headlines before Trump is willing to cut Zinke loose, the former official said.
He may face the most serious legal jeopardy from the land development deal in Whitefish, Mont., which involves a group backed by Halliburton Chairman David Lesar and which received a crucial assist from a nonprofit foundation created by Zinke. Zinke and Lesar met in the secretary’s Interior Department office last year before discussing the development project over dinner, POLITICO reported in June.
The possible legal repercussions could involve anything from anti-bribery statutes down to an assortment of public integrity regulations, depending on whether any evidence exists to support a quid pro quo between Zinke and Lesar, said Scott Amey, general counsel for the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight. But Amey warned that it has become much harder for prosecutors to prove bribery since the Supreme Court tightened the standards in 2016, when they tossed out the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
Even so, Amey said, “there’s a whole slew of different regs that would put Zinke on the hook that would be a lot easier to prove.”
Still, the embattled chief has supporters. Zinke is “a natural leader” who has an “extraordinary presence,” said Alex Flint, executive director of the Alliance for Market Solutions, who served as Zinke’s sherpa through his Senate confirmation process.
Though he hasn’t spoken to Zinke since July, Flint said he is saddened by the news dogging the Interior boss.
“I watch it somewhat pained because I like him as an individual,” Flint said.