WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, facing federal investigations into his travel, political activity and potential conflicts of interest, will be leaving the administration at year's end, President Donald Trump said Saturday.
In his resignation letter, obtained by The Associated Press, Zinke said "vicious and politically motivated attacks" against him had "created an unfortunate distraction" in fulfilling the agency's mission.
Trump, in tweeting Zinke's departure, said the former Montana congressman "accomplished much during his tenure" and that a replacement would be announced next week. The Cabinet post requires Senate confirmation.
Zinke is leaving weeks before Democrats take control of the House, a shift in power that promises to sharpen the probes into his conduct. His departure comes amid a staff shake-up as Trump heads into his third year in office facing increased legal exposure due to intensifying investigations into his campaign, business, foundation and administration.
One top Democrat vowed Saturday that ethics investigations into Zinke would continue despite his resignation.
Zinke's resignation letter, obtained from a Zinke aide on Saturday, cites what he calls "meritless and false claims" and says that "to some, truth no longer matters."
I love working for the President and am incredibly proud of all the good work we’ve accomplished together. However, after 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations. Full statement attached. pic.twitter.com/gwo75SA6bM— Secretary Ryan Zinke (@SecretaryZinke) December 15, 2018
The letter, dated Saturday, said Zinke's last day would be Jan. 2. It was not clear whether Zinke had already submitted the letter when Trump tweeted.
Zinke, 57, played a leading part in Trump's efforts to roll back federal environmental regulations and promote domestic energy development. He drew attention from his first day on the job when he mounted a roan gelding to ride across Washington's National Mall to the Department of Interior.
Zinke had remained an ardent promoter of both missions, and his own macho image, despite growing talk that he had lost Trump's favor. On Tuesday, Zinke appeared on stage at an Environmental Protection Agency ceremony for a rollback on water regulations. Mentioning his background as a Navy SEAL at least twice, he led the audience in a round of applause for the U.S. oil and gas industry.
Trump never established a deep personal connection with Zinke but appreciated how he stood tall against criticisms from environmental groups as he worked to roll back regulations. But the White House concluded in recent weeks that Zinke was likely the Cabinet member most vulnerable to investigations led by newly empowered Democrats in Congress, according to an administration official not authorized to publicly discuss personnel matters who spoke on condition of anonymity.
His tenure was temporarily extended as Interior helped with the response to California wildfires and the West Wing was consumed with speculation over the future of chief of staff John Kelly. But White House officials pressured him to resign, the official said, which he did after his final public appearance at his department's Christmas party on Thursday night.
Montana public lands groups were quick to celebrate Zinke's departure, while the state's agriculture and energy industries praised Zinke's work.
“Ryan Zinke’s tenure at the Department of Interior was a disaster for public lands of historic proportions," said Chris Saeger, of Western Values Project. "The public and Congress should continue their commitment to vigilant oversight over the ongoing ethical abuses at Interior in order to repair its reputation.”
Saeger, a former spokesman for the Montana Democratic Party, has been a tireless gatherer of Zinke documents as Western Values Project director. The anonymously-funded group was instrumental in gathering details about a veteran's park foundation Zinke founded and its negotiations to share a parking lot with a Whitefish mall, which was being developed by Halliburton executive who, like Zinke, has a Whitefish home.
Concerns that the shared parking lot between the park and mall could constitute a conflict of interest resulted in an Interior investigation referred to the Justice Department to determine whether charges are warranted.
Zinke said the charges were bogus, as did his supporters.
Alan Olson is a former Montana legislator and now is director of the Montana Petroleum Association.
"We served together in the Senate and Ryan and I were pretty good friends," Olson said. "I can't help but think that land issue up in Whitefish is a witch hunt. You're talking about a few city lots. It's not like it's 1,000 acres of federal land. It's a parking lot."
Olson said Zinke, as Interior secretary, was undoing federal leasing practices that had bottled up oil and gas development for decades. Namely, by addressing a backlog of 3 million suspended oil and gas leased acres accumulated over the last 40 years, including 900,000 leased acres in Montana. Leased acres are suspended for various reasons, Olson said, but once they are the minerals are off limits for future development.
Zinke's work on the suspended leased acres isn't complete, Olson said.
Olson disagreed with Zinke on the fate of gas drilling in Montana's Badger Two Medicine area. Sacred to the Blackfoot tribes, the area has been the focus of an oil and gas drilling dispute for 30-plus years.
Earlier this year, drillers won a court battle to develop the Badger Two Medicine, but in November Zinke announced that Interior would appeal the ruling. Zinke said development of lands sacred to the tribe was inappropriate. He had earlier suggested giving the area national monument designation, though neither Trump nor Congress followed up.
Both Republican U.S. Rep Greg Gianforte and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines thanked Zinke for his two years at Interior.
“I appreciate Ryan’s leadership, his commitment to turning back the disastrous policies of Barack Obama, and his service which has given Montana an important voice in the administration," Gianforte said in an email. "I look forward to working with President Trump’s next Interior secretary to advance Montana’s interests, including protecting public access to our public lands and ending the Obama war on coal once and for all.”
Daines tweeted thanks to Zinke. "Thank you @SecretaryZinke for restoring commonsense management of our public lands, fighting to end the war on coal and for making the U.S. energy dominant. Montana is proud of you!"
Montana farm and ranch groups had praised Zinke. Last week, outgoing Montana Stockgrower's Association president Bryan Mussard identified Zinke as one of the reasons ranchers were experiencing their best relationship with government in 40 years.
Nicole Rolf, federal policy director for Montana Farm Bureau, said Saturday that Montanans' voices were heard at Interior with Zinke there.
"I would say it's disappointing that he is leaving because its been great having a Montanan in that position who knows Western issues," Rolf said. "So often in the past those issues have been overlooked."
In July 2017, when the Lodgepole Complex fire devoured vast swaths of grass land in Central Montana, Zinke opened up federal land for grazing inside the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. The grass prevented a mass cattle sell-off by ranchers with no forage for livestock.
"They really had nowhere to go. They would have been selling cows at a huge loss," said Jay Bodner of the Montana Stockgrowers.
Some conservation groups were glad Zinke was leaving.
"Sec. Zinke leaves behind a deeply troubling legacy. He shrank and endangered national monuments, invited the oil and gas industry to seize and exploit some of our most cherished public lands in Montana, and stripped the public from having a say over the future of those lands," said Ben Gabriel of the Montana Wilderness Association in a prepared statement. "He also hired numerous people at the Department of the Interior who have spent their careers trying to transfer or sell off public lands. Montanans deserve and expect public officials who will protect our public lands in support of our outdoor way of life."
Montana Conservation Voters Executive Director Rick Potts said in a press release that Zinke's tenure embarrassed Montana.
“Ryan Zinke’s departure from the Department of Interior is no surprise to Montanans. As the first Montanan to hold such a high position, Zinke has failed to protect the Montana way of life and embarrassed the state with his anti-public lands record and long list of scandals," Potts said. "President Trump must appoint a secretary who will stand up against big corporate interests and their efforts to take over our public lands, not someone who’s in bed with them.”
As Interior secretary, Zinke pushed to develop oil, natural gas and coal beneath public lands in line with the administration's business-friendly aims. But he has been dogged by ethics probes, including the one centered on the Whitefish veteran's park. Zinke had created the foundation and had passed control to his wife. But he did meet with the chairman of Halliburton and discussed the parking lot. Halliburton does business with the Interior Department.
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. Zinke has denied wrongdoing.
The Associated Press reported last month that the department's internal watchdog had referred an investigation of Zinke to the Justice Department.
Zinke's travels with his wife, Lola Zinke, also has come under scrutiny.
Interior's inspector general's office said Zinke allowed his wife to ride in government vehicles with him despite a department policy that prohibits non-government officials from doing so. The report also said the department spent more than $25,000 to provide security for the couple when they took a vacation to Turkey and Greece.
Trump told reporters this fall he was evaluating Zinke's future in the administration in light of the allegations and offered a lukewarm vote of confidence. Zinke in November denied he already was hunting for his next job.
"I enjoy working for the president," he told a Montana radio station. "Now, if you do your job, he supports you."
"I'm probably going to be the commander of space command," Zinke said. "How's that one?"
Zinke outlasted EPA chief Scott Pruitt, another enthusiastic advocate of Trump's business-friendly way of governing who lost favor with Trump amid ethics scandals. Pruitt resigned in July. Trump's first Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price, also resigned under a cloud of ethical questions.
Democratic leaders in Congress were scathing in response to the news that Zinke was leaving as well.
"Ryan Zinke was one of the most toxic members of the cabinet in the way he treated our environment, our precious public lands, and the way he treated the government like it was his personal honey pot," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of the New York tweeted Saturday. "The swamp cabinet will be a little less foul without him."
House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who is set to become Speaker in January, said Zinke had "been a shameless handmaiden for the special interests" and his "staggering ethical abuses have delivered a serious and lasting blow to America's public lands, environment, clean air and clean water."
Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, had warned that after Democrats took control of the House they intended to call Zinke to testify on his ethics issues.
Grijalva spokesman Adam Sarvana said Saturday that committee leaders still intended to ask for Zinke's testimony. "It's safe to say that Citizen Zinke may be leaving, but real oversight of former Secretary Zinke has not even started," Sarvana said in an email.
Earlier this month, Zinke unleashed a jarring personal attack on Grijalva, tweeting, "It's hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle."
Zinke got a warmer send-off from Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, head of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who said in a statement that he has been a "strong partner for Western states."
Under Zinke's watch, the Interior Department moved to auction off more oil leases, ended a moratorium on new sales of federally-owned coal, and repealed mandates governing drilling. Zinke's focus on the president's energy agenda was cheered by oil, gas and mining advocates, who credit the administration with seeking to balance conservation with development on public lands. But his tenure was denounced by most conservation groups.
"Zinke will go down as the worst Interior secretary in history," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement released Saturday. "His slash-and-burn approach was absolutely destructive for public lands and wildlife. Allowing David Bernhardt to continue to call the shots will still be just as ugly. Different people, same appetite for greed and profit."
Bernhardt, the deputy secretary, is in line to lead the Interior Department on an interim basis. He has spent years in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry and has deep ties to Republican politicians and conservative interest groups.
An Idaho Republican, Rep. Raul Labrador, was interested in the job and planned to go to the White House on Saturday to discuss it with officials there, said a GOP congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Labrador, 51, is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. He's retiring from Congress after eight years following his losing a bid for his state's GOP gubernatorial nomination last spring.
As head of Interior, Zinke made plans to realign the agency's bureaucracy, trimming the equivalent of 4,600 jobs, about 7 percent of its workforce. He also proposed a massive overhaul that would have moved decision-making out of Washington, relocating headquarters staff to Western states at a cost of $17.5 million.
Zinke was a one-term congressman when Trump selected him to join his incoming Cabinet in December 2016.
An early Trump supporter, Zinke is close to the president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and publicly expressed his interest in a Cabinet post when Trump visited Montana in May 2016.