WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, under federal probes for ethics violations and conflicts of interest, will leave his post by the end of the year, President Donald Trump announced Saturday as he continued to shuffle his cabinet.
Zinke led the administration’s efforts to open federal lands and offshore areas to oil and gas development, cut back environmental and other land-use regulations, and shrink two Utah national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante.
“Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation,” Trump tweeted. “The Trump Administration will be announcing the new Secretary of the Interior next week.”
Trump made the change as he enters the second half of his term facing the challenge of divided government after Democrats won the majority in the House of Representatives promising to vigorously investigate Trump and his administration.
But Zinke, who loomed as a top target of those probes, will be gone by next year, joining three other cabinet members who left under an ethical cloud: Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Zinke, 57, a former Republican congressman from Montana and Navy SEAL, led Interior in unorthodox and colorful ways, including riding horseback to his first day on the job and raising a flag over the department’s building whenever he was there.
His actions also drew multiple federal investigations, including one that the Interior inspector general reportedly referred to the Justice Department that involves a question of whether Zinke stood to benefit from a Montana development deal by the energy giant Halliburton.
Zinke and a family foundation could prosper from a proposed hotel and retail development in his hometown of Whitefish by a group funded by Halliburton chairman David Lesar, who met with Zinke and whose oil service company benefited from Interior policies, according to news reports.
The inspector general in October also said Zinke violated agency policy when his wife traveled with him in government vehicles after he considered making her a department volunteer so she could travel with him and a security detail on vacation, at a cost of $25,000.
Also under investigators’ scrutiny are Zinke’s decision against his agency’s advice to block two Indian tribes’ bid to expand a casino after he had contact with MGM resorts; complaints that he used his office to influence elections; and his policies, such as deleting all mentions of human-caused climate change in a National Park Service report.
Zinke issued a statement saying he is proud of his work with the president. But he added, "However, after 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations."
Two weeks ago, Zinke accused Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) of being a drunk after he called on Zinke to resign. Grijalva, the chairman next year of the committee that oversees the Interior Department, said in a statement, “This is no kind of victory, but I’m hopeful that it is a genuine turning of the page.”
Environmental groups scorned Zinke throughout his tenure. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a statement on Saturday called him “one of the most toxic members of the cabinet” and said “the swamp cabinet will be a little less foul without him.”
In a tweet, Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) thanked his fellow Montanan "for restoring commonsense management of our public lands, fighting to end the war on coal and for making the U.S. energy dominant."
Despite the mounting investigations, Trump stuck with Zinke for the past two years, saying last month, “I think he’s doing an excellent job."
Since the Nov. 6 election, Trump has named replacements for his attorney general and UN ambassador. On Friday, Trump announced budget director Mick Mulvaney will become acting chief of staff to fill in for John Kelly, who also is leaving at the end of the month.