Like an actor who puts a homburg on his head and a cigar in his mouth to play Winston Churchill, Ryan Zinke galloped into the Capitol his first day on the job as Interior secretary on the back of a brown gelding, 17 hands tall, named Tonto. That two-block trip pretty much ended any resemblance to Teddy Roosevelt, a passionate conservationist who founded the national park system.
For his part, Zinke is intent on shrinking national monuments lands, opening up the Arctic to drilling, and allowing lead bullets in wildlife refuges, among other actions inimical to his job definition which is, simply, to protect the Interior. He used to believe climate change was a real and present danger but gave that up to join Trump’s Cabinet. The best hope of those who care about wildlife, federal lands, endangered species, and open space is that Zinke will soon leave town on the horse he rode in on.
They may get their wish — not because of what Zinke has done in office but because of a problem endemic among Trump appointees. Zinke has a private-jet problem, as does his wife, Lolita. They’ve mixed business, politics, and pleasure on trips that sometimes end suspiciously close to one of their homes in Montana or California.
In investigating the trips, the department’s inspector general has run into another Trump administration problem. Some of the documents needed to justify traveling on the taxpayer’s dime are nowhere to be found. The IG said it had “discovered several issues that need prompt attention and changes to current IOS procedures,” including travel documents involving Mrs. Zinke when she accompanies her husband on official travel.
It’s no surprise that Zinke tried the “dog ate my file” excuse for not producing the information, the default response of people in the Trump administration from Jared Kushner on down. Zinke’s aides went a step further and blame-shifted the whole mess onto the Obama administration. Deputy David Bernhardt said Zinke “inherited an organizational and operational mess from the previous administration,” and that there were “documentation holes” in the records of the previous interior secretary, Sally Jewell.
You can be sure that Jewell didn’t fly to Las Vegas to quickly read a press release related to public lands before celebrating the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team owned by a major donor to his prior congressional campaigns as Zinke did. In doing so, Zinke may have violated the Hatch Act, which frowns on government officials making political appearances.
In any case, the trip exposed the hollowness of Zinke’s other excuse, that an Interior secretary travels to places that are hard to get to. There are daily commercial flights between Las Vegas and Kalispell, Montana, costing $300. His chartered flight there cost taxpayers $12,375.
Zinke is part of an administration that thinks emptying your pockets at security and sitting near a crying baby is for chumps. So far Zinke’s escaped the noose that tightened around former Health and Human Services Secretary Price and the ridicule directed at Treasury Secretary Mnuchin who asked for a plane for his honeymoon and who has had to reimburse the Treasury for wife Louise Linton’s travel (she was the one in the black gloves holding the newly minted dollar bills last week).
But he does have a spouse issue. A Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that forced Interior to release 100 pages of documents contains emails from staffers exasperated at Mrs. Zinke’s needs, like adding guests to official dinners, and her political activity. In September, Mrs. Zinke became chair of the campaign of the Republican challenging incumbent Montana Sen. Jon Tester who, incidentally, voted to confirm her husband.
Then there’s the question of how a two-year-old company with two employees in Zinke’s hometown ended up getting — and then losing — a lucrative, no-bid contract to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric grid. And his attempt last week — which Trump seems to have kiboshed — to lift the ban on trophy-hunting elephants and lions. Just how delicate does a hunter’s manhood have to be to celebrate hitting the broadside of a barn by hanging proof on the wall of your den? Ask Donald Jr. or Eric Trump.
Zinke is pretentious for a guy who likes to play Every Cowboy in a Stetson and boots. He had a personalized coin minted bearing his name. When he arrives in the morning, staff raises a flag (which he is redesigning) over the Interior building. When he is not there, it is taken down. If he doesn’t stop acting like a Saudi prince, it might come down for good.
Wednesday, he was seen wearing jeans and carrying a copy of Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt, His Cowboy Regiment, and the Immortal Charge Up San Juan Hill at Ronald Reagan National Airport headed home for Thanksgiving.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.