WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and his boss, President Donald Trump, moved Friday to tamp down talk that Zinke might be the next Trump administration official to go.
The 57-year-old former Montana congressman has pushed to develop oil, natural gas and coal beneath public lands in line with the administration's business-friendly aims. But Zinke has been dogged by ethics probes, including one centered on a Montana land deal involving a foundation he created and the chairman of an energy services company that does business with Interior.
Trump's long-anticipated ouster this week of Attorney General Jeff Sessions seemed to make good on expectations that Trump would shake up the ranks of officials after Tuesday's midterms. Trump told reporters Wednesday he might reach some resolution about Zinke in about a week; the Washington Post reported Friday that Trump told aides he'll make a decision on Zinke’s future after he returns from a trip to Paris next week.
However, asked outright by reporters Friday if he would fire Zinke, Trump said, "No, I'm going to look into any complaints."
The ethical questions surrounding Zinke prompted a Whitefish-based conservation group to run a $30,000 ad campaign in seven Montana newspapers calling for his resignation. The dark money Western Values Project is running full-page color ads in the Missoulian, the Billings Gazette, the Independent Record in Helena, the Montana Standard in Butte, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake, and the Ravalli Republic on Sunday.
Chris Saeger, the WVP executive director, said the group is running the ads now because “it’s a critical moment in the management of public lands.”
“It’s moments like this when we need to step up and make sure the public demands accountability,” Saeger said.
The ad features Zinke sitting atop an overturned boat, and states that he’s the subject of 15 ethics investigations and has used his public office for personal gain, a claim that's been referred to the Department of Justice for a criminal investigation.
"The public needs to start asking these questions and get real action to hold Secretary Zinke accountable," Saeger said on Friday. "I won't rule out that we'll run more, but I'm not sure we'll get too many opportunities; the pattern of comments coming out of the White House is the same as when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was under fire."
Pruitt was a close personal ally of Trump. In June, the president praised Pruitt for "doing a great job within the walls of the EPA." Within a month, after a string of ethical controversies, Pruitt tendered his resignation.
Saeger declined to reveal who is funding the ad blitz, saying his group “doesn’t disclose donors.”
The Washington Post also reported Friday that Zinke is the Cabinet member most vulnerable to an anticipated congressional probe in January, now that the House has a Democratic majority. That puts him “closer into the president’s crosshairs,” according to the Post.
Speaking Friday to a radio station in Montana, Zinke dismissed reports he already was hunting for his next job.
"I think I'm probably going to be the commander of space command," Zinke said. "How's that one?"
And he added, "I enjoy working for the president. Now, if you do your job, he supports you."
In an email, Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said Zinke was "denying in strongest possible terms" any plans to leave.
Zinke has denied wrongdoing, and his lawyer said Zinke has not been notified of any Justice Department investigation. Two sources told AP earlier that the Interior Office of Inspector General referred an investigation of Zinke to Justice, signaling a potential escalation amid a series of inquiries into Zinke's conduct.
Investigators also are reviewing Zinke's decision to block two tribes from opening a casino in Connecticut and his redrawing of boundaries to shrink a Utah national monument.
The AP's Matt Volz in Helena, and Eve Byron with the Missoulian contributed to this report.