By BEN LEFEBVRE and ELIANA JOHNSON as published on Politico.com
The news comes just a day after Trump told reporters that word on Zinke’s fate may come ‘in about a week.’
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been exploring potential roles with Fox News, the energy industry or other businesses amid growing signs that he will leave President Donald Trump’s Cabinet as he faces investigations into his ethics, according to people knowledgeable about the discussions.
The news comes just a day after Trump told reporters that word on Zinke’s fate may come “in about a week” — and as the president is in the early stages of what could be a dramatic post-election house-cleaning of Cabinet officials and top aides, starting with Wednesday’s ouster of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Two of those people said Zinke has reached out to Fox to inquire about working at the conservative news channel as a contributor.
Zinke’s outreach was a further sign that the former Navy SEAL and Montana congressman is seeking new employment opportunities. Zinke is also looking for positions on energy company boards of directors or private equity firms, sources have said — posts that one watchdog group said could pose conflict-of-interest problems for his current job running Interior.
People close to Zinke said he has made it known he plans to resign his position by the end of the year. He has yet made no such announcements, though, and he said Wednesday on Twitter that he “look[s] forward to working” with newly elected members of Congress.
Spokespeople for the Interior Department did not immediately reply to questions from POLITICO. But Interior’s press office went on Twitter to dismiss the possibility of Zinke joining Fox, writing: “It’s laughably false and belongs in The Onion.”
A contract with Fox would be unlikely unless Trump asks Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who owns the company, one source told POLITICO. There is no indication the network has responded positively to Zinke’s overtures or expressed interest in bringing him on board.
The secretary, whose job includes oversight of vast stretches of the nation’s energy and mineral wealth, has faced increasing questions about his future as investigations have intensified into his use of taxpayer’s money, handling of a proposed Connecticut gambling casino and relations with the industries he regulates. Those include a probe of a land development project in Zinke’s hometown of Whitefish, Mont., that is backed by the chairman of the giant energy company Halliburton, which POLITICO first reported in June.
Interior’s inspector general’s office has referred at least one of its probes to the Justice Department, which could decide whether to pursue its own investigation or weigh criminal charges, according to multiple news reports.
Expectations of his departure mark a significant change in fortunes for Zinke, who has enjoyed what one former White House official calls Trump’s affection for his bluntness and charisma. Just months ago, Zinke even offered himself as a possible replacement for another embattled Cabinet member, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the former White House official told POLITICO this week.
Trump has praised Zinke’s work at Interior but said this week that he plans to look at the investigations — and hinted Wednesday that a decision could come soon.
“We’re looking at that, and I do want to study whatever is being said,” Trump said during a news conference at the White House. “I think he’s doing an excellent job, but we will take a look at that, and we’ll probably have an idea on that in about a week.”
Should Zinke be in job talks with an industry he regulates, such as oil and gas, he may run into trouble with federal ethics laws, an attorney at the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center said Thursday.
According to federal statute, Zinke must recuse himself from any decisions at Interior that could affect the business of any company he is seeking employment with, said Delaney Marsco, the group’s ethics counsel. The group is considering filing a complaint on the matter, Marsco said.
“These recusal obligations apply regardless of whether the communications are indirect, and even if Zinke isn’t serious about the job and never takes it,” Marsco told POLITICO.
Zinke has also had designs on higher office. He was widely seen as a likely challenger this year for Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester until Trump picked him for Interior secretary — a process that the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. played a role in. And Zinke may eventually decide to try his hand in the Montana governor’s race in 2020, though he would probably face stiff competition in the Republican primary, political consultants in the state have said.
Besides Zinke, Republicans believed to be interested in the 2020 race include Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte, state Attorney General Tim Fox, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton and state auditor Matt Rosendale, who narrowly lost a challenge to Tester this week.
Zinke may face a new challenge if he tries to run in his old state: As Interior secretary, he has shrunk the boundaries of several national monuments that protect swaths of western land from uses like drilling and mining. That helped advance Trump’s energy policies but has been unpopular with Montanans, analysts in the state have said.
“I imagine he’ll face a crowded primary if he does [run], and I don’t think he’d be
guaranteed the nomination by any means,” said Brandon DeMars, senior associate at Montana-based political consultancy Hilltop Public Solutions.
Zinke’s outreach to private equity would have followed a meeting he had with financiers last year in New York City. During an official trip in early September 2017, he was scheduled to meet with representatives of private equity firms Cornell Capital and Harvest Capital; hedge fund Kore Capital; Ken Pontarelli, a Goldman Sachs alumnus specializing in energy companies; and Brian O’Callaghan, head of the Wall Street headhunting firm CPI, according to documents released to the Sierra Club under the Freedom of Information Act.
Zinke’s official calendar shows he was in New York City at the time the meeting was scheduled to take place, but offers no details on his activities on those days except that he visited Fox Studios NYC.
Interior’s inspector general opened an investigation in July into the Montana land deal, which involves a proposal backed by Halliburton Chairman David Lesar to build a hotel, retail shops, a microbrewery and other amenities near the center of Whitefish, a popular resort area. The project is near land that Zinke and his wife, Lola, own through various LLCs, as well as a 14-acre plot owned by a foundation Ryan Zinke created.
Lola Zinke gave the Lesar-backed development a crucial assist by agreeing in writing to let the developer use some of the foundation’s land for a parking lot, POLITICO reported in June. The developer has suggested that Ryan and Lola Zinke would get to own and operate the microbrewery, Whitefish city planner David Taylor told POLITICO.
Before the parking lot agreement was signed, Ryan Zinke met at Interior Department headquarters with Lesar and the other developers and discussed the project with them over dinner, POLITICO reported.