Zinke resigns as interior secretary amid numerous probes
By ELLEN KNICKMEYER, MATTHEW BROWN and JONATHAN LEMIRE
Monday, December 17
WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
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.”
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 protections. 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 department’s Christmas party on Thursday night. On Saturday night, hours after his resignation became public, Zinke was spotted at the White House for another holiday party, the Congressional Ball.
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 one centered on a Montana land deal involving a foundation he created and the chairman of an energy services company, Halliburton, that 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 had 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 nongovernment 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 think 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 govt 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 had 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 as a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry and has deep ties to Republican politicians and conservative interest groups.
Two outgoing Republican congressmen are said to be interested in the job.
Rep. Raul Labrador of Idaho planned to go to the White House on Saturday to discuss the job with officials, said a GOP congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe Labrador’s private plans. Labrador, 51, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, who is retiring from Congress after eight years. He lost a bid for his state’s GOP gubernatorial nomination last spring.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., is also interested in Zinke’s job, according to another Republican congressional aide who described the situation only on condition of anonymity. The aide said the White House has made inquiries about Denham to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who will be House minority leader next year. Denham, 51, has been involved in water issues in California. He lost his bid for re-election last month.
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.
Brown reported from Red Lodge, Montana. Associated Press writers Matthew Daly and Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.
Scope of investigations into Trump has shaped his presidency
By CALVIN WOODWARD and JULIE PACE
Sunday, December 16
WASHINGTON (AP) — Investigations now entangle Donald Trump’s White House, campaign, transition, inauguration, charity and business. For Trump, the political, the personal and the deeply personal are all under examination.
Less than two years into Trump’s presidency, his business associates, political advisers and family members are being probed, along with the practices of his late father. On Saturday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke became the fourth Cabinet member to leave under an ethical cloud, having sparked 17 investigations into his actions on the job, by one watchdog’s count.
All of this with the first special counsel investigation against a president in 20 years hanging over Trump’s head, spinning out charges and strong-arming guilty pleas from underlings while keeping in suspense whether the president — “Individual 1” in prosecutor Robert Mueller’s coded legalese — will end up accused of criminal behavior himself.
The scope of the scrutiny has shaped Trump’s presidency, proving a steady distraction from his governing agenda. So far, much of it has been launched by federal prosecutors and government watchdogs that eschew partisanship. The intensity is certain to increase next year when Democrats assume control of the House and the subpoena power that comes with it.
Although Trump dismisses the investigations as politically motivated “witch hunts,” his high-octane Twitter account frequently betrays just how consumed he is by the scrutiny. He’s also said to watch hours of television coverage on milestone days in the investigations.
“It saps your energy, diverts your attention and you simply can’t lead because your opponents are up in arms against you,” Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political scientist and historian, said of the scrutiny. “It weakens your friends and emboldens your enemies.”
Almost midway through his term, Trump is struggling to deliver on his central campaign promises. He may end the year without a Republican-led Congress giving him the $5 billion he wants for a border wall. And he’s previewed few legislative priorities for 2019.
Even if he had, it’s unlikely the new Democratic House majority would have much incentive to help a president weakened by investigations rack up wins as his own re-election campaign approaches.
Perhaps not since Bill Clinton felt hounded by a “vast right wing conspiracy,” as Hillary Clinton put it, has a president been under such duress from investigation.
This jeopardy has come with Trump’s party in control of Congress and the Justice Department driving at least three separate criminal investigations. They are the Mueller probe looking into possible collusion, obstruction of justice or other wrongdoing in contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia; the New York campaign-finance case involving hush money paid to Trump’s alleged lovers; and now a case from New York, first reported by The Wall Street Journal this past week, examining the finances and operations of Trump’s inaugural committee and whether foreign interests made illegal payments to it.
Behind those matters is a battery of lawsuits or inquiries from state attorneys general and other parties tied mainly to Trump businesses.
“Let me point out that there are a lot of unanswered ethical, legal and factual questions,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Sunday on CNNs’ “State of the Union.”
“But, clearly, this was not a good week for President Trump nor for his campaign organization,” she said, adding that it is “critical” for Mueller to be allowed to complete his work “unimpeded, so that we can have the full picture.”
At best, the investigations are overshadowing what has been positive economic news. At worst, the probes are a threat to the presidency, Trump’s family and his business interests.
The deep diving will only grow in the new year when Democrats take over the House. They are expected to launch their own investigations and could pursue impeachment, though party leaders caution they could face a political backlash by taking that step.
Even if Trump avoids impeachment, the Democratic investigations will create headaches. Administration officials will be called to testify before Congress and lawmakers will seek a trove of documents, probably including Trump’s tax returns, which he has refused to make public.
A bare-bones White House staff may struggle to keep up. A tally by the Brookings Institution finds more than 60 percent of Trump’s top aides have left in the first two years, a turnover rate exceeding the previous five presidents. In addition, 10 Cabinet secretaries have departed, more than Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton lost in two years. The shake-ups now have left Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget chief, doing double duty indefinitely as the president’s chief of staff.
That combination makes it hard to imagine a president effectively engaged in policy, even if — as in the case of Clinton — the drawn-out investigations lead to an impeachment that fails to remove the president.
“The modern presidency is extraordinarily complex and demanding so you need the president’s full attention,” Jillson says. “Where your attention should be, you’re also thinking about meeting with your lawyers.”
As the investigations mount, few Republicans have dissociated themselves publicly from Trump. But privately, some lawmakers do worry that the investigations will damage his re-election prospects and their own chances in 2020 House and Senate races.
The federal campaign finance probe has put GOP lawmakers in a particularly awkward position. Prosecutors, as well as Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen and a tabloid company that has long been an ally, assert that Trump directed hush payments to keep women quiet about alleged affairs in the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign. Such a payment would violate campaign finance laws. Cohen was sentenced this past week to three years in prison.
Underscoring the balancing act for Republicans, outgoing Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, initially stated that he didn’t much care about Trump being implicated in Cohen’s crime, then thought better of his words.
“I made comments about allegations against the president that were irresponsible and a poor reflection on my lengthy record of dedication to the rule of law,” Hatch said in a statement Friday.
Five people in Trump’s orbit have pleaded guilty to charges in the continuing Mueller probe. Among them, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, for a time in Trump’s presidential campaign. George Papadopoulos, a lower-level campaign adviser, was sentenced to 14 days in prison and is out. The others are Michael Flynn, who was Trump’s first national security adviser in office and is to be sentenced Tuesday, and Cohen, who is expected to begin his sentence in March.
In addition, the special counsel’s office says Flynn, in giving 19 interviews and turning over a mountain of documents, has assisted in a criminal investigation that has yet to be revealed.
In other words, there’s no end in sight.
Trump is also exposed to legal peril beyond that from federal prosecutors. Among the lawsuits or investigations:
—Democratic attorneys general in Maryland and the District of Columbia and congressional Democrats are challenging the Trump Organization’s business transactions with foreign and state government interests, such as those at his Washington hotel, citing the constitutional ban on presidents taking payments from such sources without congressional consent.
—Summer Zervos, once a contestant on Trump’s TV show, has sued Trump for defamation for accusing her of lying. She alleged in 2016 that he made unwelcome physical contact with her. He’s failed several times to derail the case.
—New York tax officials are looking into whether Trump or his charitable foundation misrepresented tax liability. In addition, the New York tax department said it is “vigorously pursuing all appropriate avenues of investigation” after a New York Times report found Trump and his family, going back to transactions by his father, Fred Trump, cheated on taxes for decades. The report said Trump received the equivalent today of at least $413 million from his father, much of it through dubious tax maneuvers. Trump called the report “a very old, boring and often told hit piece on me.”
—New York authorities allege in a lawsuit that Trump illegally tapped his charitable Trump Foundation to settle legal disputes, help his campaign for president and cover personal and business expenses, including the purchase of a life-size portrait of himself for $10,000.
Stanley Renshon, political scientist at the City University of New York and a psychoanalyst, says all of that adds up to a lot of people, not just the left, “trying to make his presidency untenable.”
It is, perhaps, vaster than the right-wing “conspiracy” the Clintons endured, Renshon says. “I call it the everybody conspiracy.”
UN force says Israel-Lebanon border tunnels violate truce
BEIRUT (AP) — U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon said Monday that two of the four tunnels discovered by Israel and allegedly dug by the Hezbollah militant group cross the border in violation of the cease-fire agreement that ended the 2006 war.
UNIFIL said it has been investigating the tunnels uncovered in an Israeli operation launched earlier this month. Israel says the militant group dug the tunnels in order to infiltrate the country and carry out attacks. Hezbollah has not commented on the operation.
“This is a matter of serious concern and UNIFIL technical investigations continue,” the peacekeeping force said in a statement.
UNIFIL said two tunnels cross the so-called Blue Line that demarcates the border between Israel and Lebanon. It called on Lebanese authorities to take “urgent follow-up” actions.
Israel and Lebanon are technically at war, and Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war that ended in stalemate in 2006. The cease-fire called on Israel to withdraw from the south and Hezbollah to keep away from the border. It also stipulated that only UNIFIL and the Lebanese armed forces would be deployed south of the Litani River.
Israel has called on the international community to impose new sanctions on the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, a heavily-armed mini-army with an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets that can reach nearly every part of Israel.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun said earlier this month his government was ready to take necessary action following a full report from the peacekeeping force on the tunnels, without offering specifics.
In Beirut, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said Lebanon is committed to the full implementation of the cease-fire agreement and respect of the Blue Line. During a meeting with Gen. Stefano Del Col, the head of UNIFIL, Hariri said the Lebanese army will conduct patrols to deal “with any flaw in the implementation” of the cease-fire.
Earlier Monday, Lebanese soldiers went on alert after Israeli troops rolled out barbed wire along the border.
Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said the incident occurred on the edge of the southern village of Mays al-Jabal when Israeli troops installed 200 meters (yards) of wire. Lebanese troops protested that the wire was placed on their side of the border.
The Israeli military said its troops were placing concertina wire “adjacent to the Blue Line” when the standoff occurred. It said the wire was installed entirely in Israeli territory, in coordination with the peacekeepers. “No violent incidents were reported,” it said.
UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said that after reports of a “standoff” between Lebanese and Israeli troops along the Blue Line, “UNIFIL troops were deployed in the area to defuse the situation, prevent misunderstandings and maintain stability.”
“The situation in the area is now calm and our troops are on the ground,” Tenenti said.