The guy can’t wear a cowboy hat properly, but Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke’s a survivor. What follows are the notes of an exiled undersecretary on a man who likes to axe national monuments.
With the removal of scandal-plagued EPA administrator Scott Pruitt in July, government ethics watchdog groups have turned their eyes to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke who is currently involved in 11 formal investigations—compared to Pruitt’s 18—and dozens of (at best) ethical faux pas. The list includes shady real estate deals, clandestine scheduling of governmental business, $6,000 helicopter flights to go horseback riding with fellow macho dreamboat Mike Pence, using the power of his office to make political favors and threats, and the reassignment of uppity Native American Interior Department employees. He’s even under investigation for tweeting about the Make America Great Again socks he’s been wearing—a clear violation of the Hatch Act intended to keep government employees from using their positions to push political ends.
But don’t count out this former Navy Seal and Montana Congressman just yet. He’s been squatting with his spurs on, it’s true, but Zinke’s image making skills are legendary. Who can forget his arrival in Washington sitting atop Tonto, a 17-hand Irish sport horse, while a Northern Cheyenne Tribe drummer laid down a beat. Sitting atop Zinke atop Tonto that day was a black cowboy hat, pulled down low on the eyes as if to say “Me and my posse are here to drive out all you bookish climate change scientists propagating this here swamp.” More recently he’s been seen wearing a National Park Service Ranger “campaign hat,” which he unfortunately doffed backwards as he has done with the cowboy hat. This from a guy that used to drive a Prius and wear a beard when he was a state senator from the ski resort, hoppy beer and outdoorsy enclave of Whitefish.
Can Zinke costume his way out of the current mess before he gets busted off ol’ Tonto and has to chew gravel like his former pardner Pruitt? He and his PR team recently sat down for a series of (natch) unscheduled meetings to figure out a plan. Luckily for Elevation Outdoors, an Interior Department staffer who didn’t want to be identified revealing wardrobe discussions reached out to our researchers. She’s since been reassigned to Barrow, Alaska. But before she went, she took prodigious notes following each meeting. Excerpts follow:
June 17, 2018: Zinke calls an emergency morning meeting with his trusted advisers and communications team.
What shocked me at first were the pastries. There were easily $300 worth of petit scones, pain au chocalat, lemon bars, and biscotti, much of it gluten free from the Secretary’s days in Santa Barbara. I didn’t see a western style cinnamon roll in any of the boxes. As soon as he had three sips of his caramel macchiato, the Secretary dove into the topic at hand. “Pruitt was about to hang” he said. “We need to get in front of these scandals or I’ll be next.” A communications staffer proposed immediately admitting wrongdoing in a prepared statement followed by a press conference. It would be best, he said, looking around the room, “if we also sacrificed some lambs to the cause.” Zinke, though, acted as if he didn’t hear him and instead redirected the conversation from damage control to image control. “What does everyone think of the black hat?” he asked. “And am I getting enough camera time on horseback?” There was much agreement on the cowboy hat, but calls were made for more shots of the Secretary riding trail, perhaps on a palomino or a chestnut. A junior staffer proposed that the Secretary soften his image slightly by chewing on a long blade of grass and occasionally tilting his hat back. Adding a feathered band to the cap was briefly discussed, but angrily dismissed by the Secretary who said he didn’t want to be accused of aping Richard Petty’s look. “I need my own fucking brand people,” he screamed. “The Zinke brand. If you don’t share my vision for this, get the hell out.” As we adjourned, he agreed to the strand of grass and mother of pearl buttons. An order was placed for alfalfa.
June 29, 2018: Casual Friday; the Secretary in alligator boots. He reconvenes the meeting near EOD in his palatial office festooned with bronze sculptures of elk and bear and mountain lions.
This time I’m shocked by the contrast. The Secretary is clearly enraged, but he’s drinking prosecco from a fluted glass and his pinky finger is flaring off the stem. “The cowboy theme clearly isn’t working people. Those fucking ethics goons are greasing up the hot seat for me! I think it’s time for us to revisit the Ranger Rick theme.” This is met with audible groans from PR, who point out that last rollout was a disaster. “The fake news will only drudge up those shots of you wearing the hat backwards,” they say. “They’re using it as a metaphor for Christ’s sake.” The Secretary though, is adamant. He says he needs Trump’s support moving forward, and the president loves men in uniform. He pulls up a picture of the president glad-handing a North Korean general as evidence. “Pruitt didn’t have a uniform; he had no safety net,” he said waving his glass demonstrably. “Get me the full kit and put an arrow under the brim this time so I know front from back. I want a photoshoot Monday in front of the building with my ‘In The Office’ Flag snapping in the wind. It’s time to wag the dog people. We need to talk to the base.”
July 5, 2018: I’m texted to meet via Skype upon the news that Pruitt had been forced out over ethical violations. I reach the Secretary in Santa Barbara, California—what Montanans call his “real home.”
Now he’s in a hot tub with what appears to be a mojito in hand; in the near distance, guests are nibbling on light tapas. It’s unclear if the Secretary is wearing a bathing suit. (For my part, I just left a barbecue and put on a pant suit for this meeting.) He’s also belligerent. Because of that and because I’m remote and alone on the video call, I record the conversation. It’s a little lispy because the Secretary is wearing those teeth whitening strips. He starts off with ‘Pwuitt is fwucking twoast.’ ‘And what the hell are you doing to make sure I’m not next? Enjoying your fwucking holiday, eh? Eating hot dogs and blowing shit up like those MAGA idiots? We need a new plan and we need it now. Here’s what I’m thinking: We haven’t played up my background as a Navy Seal enough. But since I don’t control any branches of the military, I can’t exactly head out on a mission with them, can I? So I’m thinking I should jump into a fwire fwighting scenario with the Smokejumpers. Something dangerous. We need drama to deflect CNN. Maybe I could parachute in and rescue some horses from a burning barn. Make it baby horses. Let’s start with a smokejumper suit by Monday.” “But sir,” I say, “only Forest Service Smokejumpers are active right now and they fall under the Department of Agriculture. There aren’t any jumpable fires on BLM land.” To which he replied, “I need loyal people on my team. A new fire on BLM land will be a tremendous sign of loyalty. Otherwise I hear they’re looking for field staff in the Barrow office. Click.”
July 23, 2018: Anyway, now I’m in Barrow and I’m sending you my notes. And surprise surprise, there are BLM fires out there. Get ready for Zinke’s golden parachute.
—Marc Peruzzi is the editor of Mountain magazine and the Out of Bounds columnist for Outside online. Please address hate mail to Tonto, Office of Former National Monuments, Care of Former National Park Service.