Trump: Interior Secretary Zinke to step down at end of year

Ryan Zinke's exit will be the latest in a long list of high-profile departures from the Trump administration.

    Ryan Zinke has run the Interior Department overseeing the US's vast public lands since early 2017 [Reuters]
    Ryan Zinke has run the Interior Department overseeing the US's vast public lands since early 2017 [Reuters]

    US President Donald Trump announced on Saturday that his interior secretary will step down in the coming weeks. 

    Ryan Zinke, who is facing federal investigations into his travel, political activity and potential conflicts of interest, will leave the administration at the end of the year, Trump said on Twitter.

    His exit will be the latest in a series of high-profile departures from Trump's administration.

    The president highlighted that Zinke's tenure - less than two years - was substantially longer than that of some other former top officials in the administration.

    "Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation," the president said, adding that a replacement would be announced next week.

    Under scrutiny

    Trump did not give a reason for Zinke's departure.

    The former Navy Seal and former congressman from Montana is one of several members of Trump's cabinet to come under fire over expenditures, including reports that his department was spending nearly $139,000 to upgrade three sets of double doors in his office - a cost he later said he negotiated down to $75,000. 

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

    Zinke, 51, has run the Department of the Interior since early 2017. He pursued Trump's agenda to promote oil drilling and coal mining by expanding federal leasing, cutting royalty rates and easing land protections.

    Zinke was among Trump's most active cabinet members, cutting huge wilderness national monuments in Utah to a fraction of their size and proposing offshore oil drilling in the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic. He became a favourite of the US energy and mining industries and a prime target for conservationists and environmental groups.

    Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer applauded Zinke's departure in a tweet.

    "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," Schumer said. "The swamp cabinet will be a little less foul without him."

    In July, the Interior Department's Office of Inspector General began investigating a Montana land deal between a foundation Zinke set up and a development group backed by the chairman of oil service company Halliburton Co, which has business with the Department of the Interior.

    In late October, that investigation was referred to the US Justice Department for a possible criminal investigation, according to multiple media reports. The Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior have declined to comment.

    There are two other continuing investigations of Zinke's conduct. Interior's watchdog is examining whether the department purposefully redrew the boundaries of Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in a way that would benefit a state legislator who owns adjoining property.

    The watchdog also is investigating Zinke's decision to block casinos proposed by two Connecticut Native American tribes. Critics allege he made that move, overruling his staff's recommendation, shortly after he met lobbyists for MGM Resorts International, which owns a new casino in the region.

    Zinke has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

    Series of departures

    The announcement on Zinke came just a week after another impending high-profile departure was made public. Trump announced earlier this month that his chief of staff, John Kelly, would also be leaving the White House. 

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    Trump on Friday tapped Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, to fill the chief of staff job 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 advisers, an attorney general and the head of the US environment agency.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies