WASHINGTON – Were these normal times, we would now be saying “sayonara” to Ryan Zinke.
President Donald Trump’s secretary of the interior has inspired a half-dozen ongoing investigations into his travel expenses, his blending of official business with political activities and personal pleasure, and his whimsical management of a 70,000-person, 500 million-acre agency.
And now this:
Testifying before Congress last week, Zinke was questioned by Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, D-Hawaii, who mentioned that two of her grandparents were held as Japanese American internees during World War II. She asked Zinke why the administration wants to cut funds to preserve Japanese American internment sites.
Zinke smirked. “Oh, konnichiwa,” he replied to Hanabusa, a fourth-generation American.
Even after he had time to reflect, Zinke was unapologetic. “How could ever saying ‘Good morning’ be bad?” he said over the weekend.
Actually, it’s closer to “Good afternoon,” but let’s follow Zinke’s logic on this: He’ll soon be greeting a Jewish lawmaker with “Shalom,” an African-American lawmaker with “Jambo,” Mexican American questioners with a spirited “Que pasa?” and Native Americans with “How.” It is the benevolent ruler who greets the natives in their ancestral tongues.
That’s fitting, because Zinke runs his department much like a 19th-century colonial governor or imperial viceroy – and not just because he showed up on horseback his first day of work. As The Washington Post’s Lisa Rein reported, Zinke assigned a staffer to hoist a special secretarial flag whenever he enters Interior Department headquarters. He also commissioned a commemorative coin with his name on it.
The Interior Department is Zinke’s plaything. He toyed with disbanding 200 federal advisory boards (most members of the national parks advisory board resigned, saying Zinke sidelined them), but he created a new one – a group of big-game trophy hunters to advise him on big-game trophies. To run the national parks, Zinke tapped an official who improperly helped Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder remove 130 trees to improve his estate’s river views. Now Zinke’s talking about $70 entrance fees at national parks, because freeloaders – the elderly, the disabled, veterans and “fourth-graders” – pay discounted fees.
Zinke reassigned dozens of senior career employees, suspecting them of disloyalty. As The Post’s Dino Grandoni and Juliet Eilperin reported last week, Zinke’s Bureau of Land Management distributed “vision cards,” featuring an image of an oil rig, to be worn by the natives – er, the employees. And Zinke’s department now has political appointees screening grants, a process overseen by a kindergarten classmate and football buddy of Zinke’s.
Zinke’s fine tastes befit a colonial ruler. It’s possible that, as his spokeswoman says, he didn’t know about a decision by career staffers to spend $138,670 to replace three sets of doors in his office. But he certainly knew of the tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars spent on private plane and helicopter rides. This included a $12,000 private flight from Las Vegas to an airport near his home in Montana after an event he did with a political donor made him miss a commercial flight, and $6,000 on government helicopters so Zinke could go horseback riding with Vice President Pence.
The department’s inspector general is trying to sift through Zinke’s expenses, which don’t adequately “distinguish between personal, political and official travel,” she said.
Zinke, asked about his expenses at a Senate hearing last week, replied that “I never took a private jet anywhere” – because he flew on prop planes.
At Thursday’s House hearing, Rep. Nanette Barragan, D-Calif., asked why he had not replied to her letter about his expenses. Zinke, rebuking Barragan for her lack of “courtesy,” replied by waving a copy of a reply that he said had been addressed to the top Democrat on the committee.
It turned out the letter was not addressed to any Democrat.
The viceroy needn’t trouble himself with such details. Nor need he fret that he told lawmakers last week that “Florida did not get an exemption” from expanded offshore oil drilling – even though Zinke himself announced in January that Florida was “off the table.”
Zinke has worked hard to reach such stature. Back when he was a Navy SEAL, he was found to have billed the government for personal travel to his home in Montana.
“I ended up having to repay $211 in unauthorized expenses,” he wrote in his book, “American Commander,” “but the biggest penalty was being embarrassed for wrongdoing.”
It would seem the viceroy is no longer vulnerable to such sentiments.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.