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US Politics

Embattled US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blames ‘vicious attacks’ for resignation

  • Ryan Zinke is the latest in a series of high-profile departures from an administration beset by turnover and alleged ethical failings
  • Zinke tied his departure to the burden of ‘meritless and false claims’ against him
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 December, 2018, 1:16am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 December, 2018, 9:31pm

Donald Trump’s embattled Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, is stepping down, following a series of scandals in which he is accused of using his position for personal gain.

In his resignation letter, 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 this 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 January 2. It was not clear whether Zinke had already submitted the letter when Trump tweeted.

The interior secretary is responsible for overseeing conservation and mineral extraction on public land that, if stitched together, would be larger than Mexico.

But Zinke has been the target of a number of ethics investigations, making him a lightning rod for complaints from Democrats, who expressed no regrets over his impending departure.

“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 tweeted.

“The swamp cabinet will be a little less foul without him.”

Along with Trump’s first environmental protection chief Scott Pruitt - who resigned in July amid a series of scandals over ethical lapses and lavish spending - Zinke helped spearhead a presidential push to sharply relax environmental regulations and expand energy production.

The Zinke announcement came just a week after another impending high-profile departure - that of Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly - was made public.

Trump on Friday tapped Mick Mulvaney - the director of the Office of Management and Budget - to serve as chief of staff on an acting basis, setting him up to be the third person to hold the post since the president took office in early 2017.

A series of other top officials have left the Trump White House, including a secretary of state, two national security advisors and an attorney general, as well as Pruitt.

Zinke is one of several members of Trump’s cabinet to come under fire over expenditures, including reports that his department was spending nearly US$139,000 to upgrade three sets of double doors in his office - a cost he later said he negotiated down to US$75,000.

He had been the subject of some 15 investigations, including one for allowing his wife to ride in government vehicles and another for taking a security detail with him on a vacation trip to Turkey, according to The Washington Post.

He has also faced criticism over costly US Park Police helicopter flights last year that allowed him to return to Washington for a horseback ride with Vice-President Mike Pence, and several other flights on non-commercial aircraft.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who wore cowboy boots to the office and carried himself with a Western swagger, seemed to emulate Trump when under fire, lashing back rather than retreating.

Last month, when a Democratic congressman said it was time for new leadership at the Interior Department, Zinke suggested in a tweet that his critic had a drinking problem.

“It’s hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle,” he wrote, a comment that many in Washington thought crossed a line.

The Guardian, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse