Ryan Zinke and Scot Pruitt have a lot in common. Will their careers in the Trump administration have similar endings?
A report released on Thursday by the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of the Interior revealed that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spent $25,000 in taxpayer dollars on a security detail for a vacation to Turkey and Greece. The report also found that Zinke tried to circumvent department policies to justify his taxpayer-funded trips with his wife, Lolita Zinke.
President Donald Trump campaigned on cleaning up Washington D.C.,vowing to “drain the swamp” and implement new ethics controls. He said it as a candidate in 2016. He said it during his first address to Congress in February of 2017. He even said it last month at a rally in Las Vegas. And yet, the swamp is as swampy as ever.
But ethical inquiries now feel almost routine for this White House, even at the highest levels of the government. In September 2017, Tom Price, the health and human services secretary, resigned following revelations that he had used tax dollars to pay for pricey charter flights to locations around the world.
Ethical inquiries now feel almost routine for this White House, even at the highest levels of the government.
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Price’s scandal was soon overshadowed, however, by allegations leveled at (now former) Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. Pruitt’s scandals were numerous, but some highlights include his spending millions of taxpayer dollars on a huge security detail, inflating the salaries of favorite aides, asking an aide to get his wife a Chick-Fil-A franchise and renting a luxury Capitol Hill condo tied to a prominent lobbyist — for just $50 a night.
For more than nine months, Pruitt weathered storm after storm as Trump defended him in the press. Ultimately, he was forced to resign.
Just like Pruitt, Ryan Zinke has demonstrated a disturbing pattern of behavior while running the Interior Department.
Last October, Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking member (and possibly soon-to-be chairman) of the House Oversight Committee, requested documents related to “the reassignment of dozens of senior employees and career civil servants” in “alleged retaliation for blowing the whistle on activities within the department.” If true, this would constitute a clear violation of the protections established in 5 U.S.C. 2301.
There are now several investigations that have been opened or requested involving Zinke’s conduct. These include an investigation that began in June related to a sweetheart land deal with Halliburton involving property owned by the Zinke’s. Other investigations involved Zinke’s alleged abuse of power; another involves allegations that Zinke threatened two Republican Alaska senators over their votes on healthcare legislation.
Just a week ago, the nonpartisan watchdog group, American Oversight, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Western Values Project to “investigate Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s leadership” and asked “for records related to Zinke’s conduct during his tenure as secretary, including records of Zinke’s travel to various political conferences, his communications with individuals tied to Halliburton, and any emails sent by or to Zinke on personal email accounts or private servers.”
Earlier this week, an American Indian tribe in Connecticut joined with the State of Connecticut to file a lawsuit accusing Zinke alleging that the secretary was using “improper political influence” after blocking the opening of the tribe’s casino last year.
And yet time and again, Trump has looked the other way. But Trump isn’t the only one choosing to turn a blind eye to internal corruption. There was a time when Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee would be salivating at the sight of an administration official facing this kind of ethical scrutiny. I know because I was the spokesperson and senior advisor for the panel from 2009 to 13. I watched every day how Republicans like Darrell Issa, Trey Gowdy, Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows talked about exposing waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement inside Barack Obama’s administration. I watched as they issued subpoenas, launched investigations and held oversight hearings following even the slightest whiff of impropriety. Where are the hearings now? Where are the subpoenas? Where did those over-zealous oversight thirsty Republicans in Congress go?
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-CA, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote this week in the Washington Post that if Democrats win back the majority in the House, they “will need to ruthlessly prioritize” oversight and investigations.
Given Zinke’s conduct and growing list of scandals, it certainly seems like he is volunteering to be the first test if Democrats regain power. There are two ways Zinke can avoid the inevitable embarrassment that a congressional investigation would cause: he can resign or Trump can fire him. Or Republicans can roll the dice on the midterms, hold their noses, and see how long it takes before the stink of corruption becomes so overpowering even this White House can’t stomach it anymore.