Trump's Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke calls himself a geologist, but he has never held a job as one

In more ways than one, Zinke has quietly become one of the most controversial figures in the Trump administration

Published April 17, 2018 5:00PM (EDT)

Ryan Zinke (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Ryan Zinke (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is quite selective with what he feels should be known about him – and what he feels should not be known about him.

One thing Zinke never forgets to mention is that he is a self-proclaimed geologist, a title he has used "40 times in public settings, including many under oath before Congress." But, as it turns out, he has never once held a job as a one, according to CNN.

But something Zinke did not feel the need to mention was that, when he gave a speech last year to a professional hockey team, the Las Vegas Golden Knights, its owner was one of his largest campaign donors. The speech he delivered was entirely unrelated to his department, the Interior's inspector general concluded, but taxpayers were still on the hook for his $12,000 charter flight, according to Politico.

"If ethics officials had known Zinke’s speech would have no nexus to the DOI, they likely would not have approved this as an official event, thus eliminating the need for a chartered flight," the IG report stated on Monday. "Moreover, had ethics officials been made aware that the Golden Knights' owner had been a donor to Zinke's congressional campaign, it might have prompted further review and discussion."

The report found that Zinke did not exactly do anything illegal "but that Zinke’s failure to disclose his relationship with Golden Knights owner Bill Foley and the content of his speech prevented a closer look by ethics officials," Politico reported.

As for his self-proclaimed geological expertise, Zinke only holds a B.S. in geology, a major he chose at complete random when he attended the University of Oregon on a football scholarship, CNN reported. But he has used it to act as if it has given him some sort of authority to make certain decisions within his department.

Last month, Zinke told the House Natural Resources Committee, "I can tell you, from a geologist, offshore mining of sand is enormously destructive environmentally, as in comparison to seismic," CNN reported.

"Florida is different in the currents — I'm a geologist — it's different in geology," he once told Breitbart News.

"I think the assessments of the USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] has done previous, I think they fall short, from a geologist's point of view," he also said during a press conference.

But while he has been quick to use his bachelor's degree as a voice of authority on the subject, actual geologists have expressed skepticism about Zinke's knowledge.

"He seems not to be familiar with modern geologic knowledge," Seth Stein, a professor at the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University told CNN. "In particular, geologists now know that the climate is warming rapidly because of human activities. This is is causing many serious problems including rising sea level, which is a major threat to coastal communities."

Zinke has used his so-called geological expertise to form several decisions he has made at the Interior, such as fracking. "I'm a former geologist. I say 'former,' because when I went to school, I was taught that we are going to be out of oil in 2003; that there was peak oil. That's not possible with fracking."

As if he was not already becoming a shady character in President Donald Trump's administration, a little-known conservative political nonprofit connected to Vice President Mike Pence recently ran a campaign-style advertisement for Zinke that touted his work as the head of the Interior, according to the Huffington Post.

"From sea to shining sea, they're America’s national treasures," a narrator for the ad said as the camera highlighted several national parks. "But for too long, Washington has neglected our national parks. Now, Donald Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wants to change that."

The conservative nonprofit, American Economic Freedom Alliance, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads on behalf of GOP lawmakers who have fought to end tax credits for undocumented immigrants and to repeal Obamacare, HuffPost noted.

The ad has fueled speculation that Zinke has ambitious political aspirations in his sights.

"I think he wants to be governor of Montana, then president of the United States," Land Tawney, president and chief executive of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, told HuffPost.

The news comes as Zinke has taken actions as interior secretary that have led some to believe that he has treated public lands differently outside of Montana, his home state.

A report from the New York Times elaborated:

In the last year, Mr. Zinke has torn up Obama-era rules related to oil, gas and mineral extraction and overseen the largest reduction of federal land protection in the nation’s history, including an effort to slash the size of Bears Ears National Monument.

But here in Montana, where support for drilling in certain beloved areas can be a career killer, Mr. Zinke has struck a different note. And as he faces allegations that he has violated travel and ethics rules, an examination of his Interior Department record shows that his pro-development bent has not always applied to his home state, where he is viewed as a fiercely ambitious candidate for future office.

Zinke appears to be a man of multiple dimensions. Dimensions, of course, that he has sought to use to justify his decisions at the Interior, please his hefty donors and potentially further his political career. In more ways than one, Zinke has quickly — but quietly — become one of the most controversial figures in the Trump administration.

By Charlie May

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