Trump's Interior secretary goes to war — against his own department

Ryan Zinke has called Interior civil servants disloyal and unpatriotic, and now he's undermining their work

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published September 28, 2017 4:58AM (EDT)

Ryan Zinke (Getty/Mark Wilson)
Ryan Zinke (Getty/Mark Wilson)

While Donald Trump was busy impugning the patriotism of NFL players, his Interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, was snagging headlines of his own by questioning the integrity of the people who work for him. On Monday, Zinke spoke to the National Petroleum Council at the elite Hay-Adams Hotel, and his comments were startling even by the drastically lowered standards of the Trump era.

“I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag," Zinke said of Interior employees, most of whom work in non-political positions managing public lands, doing scientific work or enforcing and managing long-standing regulations.

He then promised the roomful of oil executives that he would speed up the process of permitting drilling and other extraction on federal lands. Zinke suggested he would accomplish that, in part, by restructuring his department to drive out career bureaucrats he portrayed as obstacles to plans for widespread drilling, equating such opposition with disloyalty to the nation itself.

"This seems to be a pattern from Trump on down, in terms of this administration trying to define for the rest of America what is a loyal and what is a disloyal American," Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, told Salon. He added that these comments disparaged "people that have dedicated their lives" to public service. 

Grijalva noted that Zinke has never publicly commented on the words and deeds of the Bundy family, who have repeatedly taken up arms against the U.S. government to protest federal ownership of public lands. Grijalva called this "ironic," as it was the Bundys, not career Interior officials, who were clearly disloyal to the United States.

Zinke's efforts to restructure the Interior Department to be friendlier to oil and gas interests already appear to be well underway. The Inspector General's office has already opened an investigation into Zinke for reassigning dozens of senior Interior staff, after Senate Democrats sent a letter expressing concern that Zinke did so "to force them to resign, to silence their voices, or to punish them for the conscientious performance of their public duties."

One such reassigned staff members spoke with Salon and had a troubling story to tell. Joel Clement is a scientist who had been working as the director of policy analysis at Interior. He had been working to help Alaska Natives whose homes face increasing danger of being washed out to sea due to changes caused by global warming. Then Zinke reassigned him to a job collecting royalty checks from oil and gas leases.

Clement personally filed a whistleblower complaint and has been publicly speaking out against the reassignments, which he views as an effort to railroad dedicated public servants out of their jobs. In the complaint, a redacted copy of which was shared with Salon, Clement characterized his reassignment as retaliation for "my disclosures about the imminent danger to several Alaska Native communities."

"There was a very quickly a buzz around the building," Clement said about the Interior offices after Zinke's statements became public. "Everybody was so offended by it."

It wasn't just the attack on government employees' patriotism, Clement said, but also the fact that the Interior secretary "doesn't seem to have a strong understanding of what the department does."

Clement characterized Zinke as "arrogant" and argued that his behavior "causes folks at Interior to think he's working for industry," instead of for the American people.

"Career employees at the Department of the Interior owe their allegiance to the Constitution and federal law, not Secretary Zinke or any other person," Justin Pidot, who worked as the deputy solicitor for land resources at the Interior under Barack Obama, told Salon. 

"We have a career civil service to protect against precisely this kind of demand for unthinking and unquestioning 'loyalty,'" argued Amanda Leiter, who worked as deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals at the department under Obama. "Good government depends on providing intelligent and committed civil servants with the room and authority to question the decisions of their superiors."

Pidot agreed, saying, "When staff disagreed with me, even passionately, it was clear to me that they acted with integrity, diligence and an unwavering commitment to the American people."

Kate Kelly, director of public lands at the Center for American Progress, noted that Zinke likes to offer "these big shows on social media about these fun-and-games things" for Interior employees, such as instituting "doggy days" when staff can bring their pets to work or installing the video game Big Buck Hunter in the cafeteria.  

Kelly said she is not opposed to dogs or video games, but she feels these moves do not "make up for the lack of respect and lack of support that [Zinke] is showing career civil servants" or the way he treats them like "vessels in which to cram his ideology through" the administrative process.

"The Interior, EPA [and] Education are all being systematically shifted to an ideological position," Grijalva argued. "With Interior, it is about extraction. It is about the multi-use concept of our natural resources being thrown out the window, and only looking at one use. That is extraction."

We have "a system of public lands and waterways that have been protected from Republican and Democratic administrations," Grijalva said. Zinke's decisions and public statements are a rejection of "that history and that tradition," he added.

"Leadership can come in and reorient the agency around different priorities," Clement said. "But the laws still need to be enforced, regulations need to be implemented. And this needs to be done without a political taint."

At the same time as Zinke has ramped up possibly unlawful efforts to drive out or demoralize civil servants, he's been filling the political appointments at the Interior Department with a murderer's row of oil and gas industry insiders. During the campaign, Trump promised to "drain the swamp," a phrase that was presumably understood to mean eliminating corruption and special interests in politics. If Trump and Zinke have their way at the Interior Department, soon there will be nothing left but swamp creatures.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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