EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is limping out of April after a barrage of bad press and criticisms of his character — and environmentalists are eager to give Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke the same treatment.
Activists on the left believe the two Cabinet secretaries cut a similar profile, and the heightened scrutiny of Pruitt could offer them a blueprint for challenging Zinke.
"Secretary Zinke absolutely belongs in the same breath as Administrator Pruitt when it comes to wasting taxpayer money and the ethical troubles and conflicts of interest and the transactional approach to leadership," said Matt Lee-Ashley, a former deputy chief of staff at the Interior Department under President Obama who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Many of Zinke’s foes stop short of calling for his resignation (although some say any other Republican administration would have sacked him already). Instead, they’re learning how to target the officials who have otherwise proved themselves to be the most effective at executing President Trump’s policy agenda.
Zinke’s defenders see parallels, too.
"These two gentlemen are the most effective at draining the swamp that [Trump] has, so the attacks on them are not surprising — but the petty nature of these attacks show they’re grasping at straws," said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance.
Like Pruitt, Zinke faces a constellation of controversies. His office was slated to spend $139,000 on doors (later he said it had reduced the price to $55,000). He’s taken private flights that allowed him to speak at political events (an inspector general report said his staff generally followed the rules but faulted Zinke’s office for withholding details from ethics officials).
Zinke has also caught heat for reviewing government research prior to publication and for reassigning senior career staffers. Some of the reassigned staffers worked in climate science, and a disproportionate number were Native Americans — which opponents have highlighted amid reports that Zinke repeatedly told staffers he doesn’t think diversity is important. An inspector general report said the reassignment process was too poorly documented to tell whether anything improper occurred.
Environmentalists say the staff reassignments could prove especially perilous for Zinke.
"What you’re seeing from whistleblowers from inside EPA has been very effective. We’ve seen some of that from inside Interior. But if I were Secretary Zinke, I’d be very worried about more," said Aaron Weiss, media director at the Center for Western Priorities.
Zinke and Pruitt have also provided the sort of material that finds its way onto late-night comedy. Environmentalists were tickled to watch John Oliver, host of the HBO show "Last Week Tonight," devote similar segments to both men.
For Pruitt, it was reports that his security detail broke down his condo door to find him napping. For Zinke, it was his penchant for calling himself a geologist despite never holding that job.
"These guys certainly aren’t doing themselves any favors," said Lena Moffitt, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign.
Moffitt said there are so many scandals around Zinke, the public can use any of them as a doorway to the others. And raising public scrutiny of Zinke will embolden even more whistleblowers and leakers to come forward, she added.
Pruitt ‘more threatening’?
Zinke’s job seems relatively secure in an administration that has shed two Cabinet secretaries and a Cabinet nominee in little over a month.
His congressional experience helped him win over some conservation groups and chart a smooth path through Senate confirmation. He faced less pressure during that process than Pruitt, who came into office with a clear mission to loosen EPA regulations and slash the agency’s size and budget.
"The threat of actually reining in EPA is so much more threatening to the environmental lobby, it’s not surprising that that’s what they’re [attacking first]," Sgamma said.
For now, at least, Zinke isn’t proving to be as much of a political lightning rod.
As two congressional panels grilled Pruitt last week, Zinke tweeted pictures of himself showing wounded veterans around the White House, cutting a $188 million check to Gulf Coast states and handing out national park passes.
For a Cabinet secretary who arrived to his first day of work on horseback, the pageantry could offer an advantage over other administration jobs.
"He can use things like national parks as a cover for good press in a way that the head of the EPA can’t, because [Pruitt] doesn’t have something wonderful, touchy-feely like national parks to be able to talk about and pivot to," Weiss said.
The No. 2 officials at each agency pose a headache for environmentalists eager to see Zinke or Pruitt gone.
EPA Deputy Administrator Andrew Wheeler used to work as a coal lobbyist and was a staffer to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). Interior Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt worked for the department in the George W. Bush administration and represented energy companies in his private practice.
"Bernhardt is talented at taking what he’s heard from industry and implementing it. And it’s scary," Moffitt said. "It’s hard to say who’s worse. But together they’re a real threat."
The Center for Western Priorities doesn’t want to see Bernhardt in the top job, either; that’s one reason it has stopped short of calling for Zinke’s resignation.
"His deputy secretary is apparently calling the shots at Interior," Lee-Ashley said. "[Zinke’s] been the face for the Interior Department, but a lot of the transactional wheeling and dealing with the oil and gas industry has been done seemingly through the deputy secretary’s office."
That emphasizes the need to counter the department on policy, he said, rather than only through personnel.
"One would hope there would be a degree of self-preservation that would kick in for Secretary Zinke," he said.