WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke faced a storm of criticism Tuesday after he said nearly one-third of employees at his department are not loyal to him and President Donald Trump.
Zinke said that when he took over the 70,000-employee department in March, "I got 30 percent of the crew that's not loyal to the flag" and compared Interior to a pirate ship.
Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona said Zinke should "apologize to the public servants he is supposed to be leading."
Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said that as a former Navy SEAL, Zinke "should be well aware that loyalty is earned. And you don't earn it — or deserve it — with divisive comments like these."
In a speech Monday to an oil industry group, Zinke compared Interior to a pirate ship that captures "a prized ship at sea and only the captain and the first mate row over" to finish the mission. Interior has "good people," Zinke said, "but the direction has to be clear and you've got to hold people accountable."
Joel Clement, a climate scientist who filed a whistleblower complaint after he and 50 other senior employees at Interior were reassigned, said civil servants are loyal to the U.S. flag.
They "also know a demagogue when they see one," he said, referring to Zinke. The number of Interior employees who disagree with Zinke and Trump "is much higher than 30 percent," Clement said.
The government's former ethics chief, Walter Shaub, also slammed Zinke, writing on Twitter that "Zinke's remark is the opposite of patriotism. Feds are loyal to America, not junior cabinet secretaries and politicians."
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said Interior employees "deserve respect from the man charged with leading them — not cheap shots in the press."
Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Zinke's comments "betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of federal civil service."
Most of Interior's 70,000 workers "are non-political employees charged with implementing and enforcing laws passed by Congress," she said, adding that many have vast expertise in their areas of responsibility.
"Replacing them with purely political people will not protect our public lands or protect taxpayers from special interest sweetheart deals," she said.
A group of current and retired Interior employees called Zinke's comments disrespectful and divisive.
"Employee commitment to mission and country is not a partisan issue," the group said a statement organized by the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks and two other organizations.
Zinke's comments echo complaints by some White House allies that a permanent, "deep state" in Washington has sabotaged Trump's efforts to remake the government.
Zinke did not go that far, but he lamented that, "there's too many ways in the present process for someone who doesn't want to get (a regulatory action) done to put it in a holding pattern."
To remedy that, Zinke said he is pursuing a major reorganization that would push much of Interior's decision-making outside Washington and move several agencies, including the Bureau of Reclamation and Bureau of Land Management, to undetermined Western states.
"I really can't change the culture without changing the structure," Zinke said, adding that he wants to speed up permits for oil drilling, logging and other energy development that now can take years.
"The president wants it yesterday," Zinke said, referring to energy permits. "We have to do it by the law."