White House officials have identified Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as the Cabinet member most vulnerable to a congressional probe under a Democratic majority in January, putting the colorful secretary closer into the president’s crosshairs, according to two senior administration officials briefed on the matter.
The new assessment comes as President Donald Trump is weighing whether to dismiss Zinke, according to the officials, who asked for anonymity to discuss personnel matters. Trump has told aides he will make a decision next week after he returns from Paris, they said.
At the White House on Friday, he gave Zinke a tepid vote of confidence. Asked if he would fire Zinke, the president said, "No," but quickly added,"I'm going to look into any complaints."
Zinke's personal conduct and management decisions have spurred at least 15 investigations, nine of which have been closed. The most serious one, which Interior's acting inspector general referred to the Justice Department last month, focuses on whether the secretary used his office for personal gain in connection with a land deal he forged in Whitefish, Mont., with Halliburton Chairman David Lesar and other investors.
Recently released public records show that Zinke has taken an unconventional approach to his job at times, including arranging meetings with multiple billionaires and taking 66 days of personal leave during his first year and-a-half on the job.
Zinke has sought to keep his job, telling White House officials that he did nothing wrong and urging them to postpone any decision.
The president is mainly focused on the federal investigation of Zinke's role in the Montana land deal, the officials said, though White House aides are assessing several aspects of his job performance.
Officials have begun studying which Cabinet officials are most likely to face serious investigations on Capitol Hill, moreover, and the former Navy SEAL and congressman ranks at the top of the list.
Trump has also voiced concern about Zinke's conduct and has groused that it could become a problem for the president. Unlike former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, who stayed in office for months after allegations surfaced about his spending and management decisions, Zinke does not have the same kind of close relationship that Pruitt and Trump enjoyed.
House Democrats such as Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, who is slated to take the gavel of the House Natural Resources Committee next year, are already gearing up to grill Zinke on both his personal conduct and management decisions.
On Wednesday, Grijalva said he and his colleagues want the interior secretary to provide answers on several fronts. Last month, Interior's acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, referred that inquiry, which is examining whether Zinke used his office for personal gain, to the Justice Department.
"This is our check and balance, our constitutional obligation and our jurisdiction," Grijalva said. "Us exercising our oversight and accountability responsibilities is not asking for a war with the administration."
New emails released this week to the Sierra Club under the Freedom of Information Act show that the secretary met a wealthy developer from Sacramento about wildlife issues after a college friend and political supporter described Angelo Tsakopoulos as "a very powerful billionaire California Liberal Democrat."
Ed Hagerty - who played football in college with Zinke at the University of Oregon and has worked in energy investing - donated $10,000 in 2012 to a super PAC Zinke established, according to federal records.
"I do know he also has powerful feelings that concern the Army Corps of Engineers and their work within the state of California," Hagerty wrote in a June 23, 2017, email.
Hagerty asked Zinke, whom he referred to as "Z-Man," "Would it be possible to arrange a meeting for Angelo with someone high up on your staff?"
Zinke knew just the person.
"Ed, I would be glad to take the meeting personally," he replied an hour-and-a-half later.
Tsakopoulos is an influential land developer who unsuccessfully challenged federal restrictions on plowing up wetlands under the Clean Water Act. In 2002, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit that Tsakopoulos violated the law when he used a bulldozer with a deep plow to rip up wetlands he owned in an effort to convert them into agricultural land.
Three months later the three men gathered with some of Zinke's top staffers in the secretary's conference room "to discuss how farmers, developers, business interest [sic] can work with federal agencies to conserve wildlife more efficiently," according to Zinke's official calendar.
Asked about the meeting, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said, "Working with the private sector to conserve wildlife and habitat has been a recurring theme in the Secretary's tenure so it's unsurprising that he had a meeting on that issue in 2017."
But Michael Brune, executive director of the advocacy group Sierra Club, said the exchange showed how personal connections are driving decisions at Interior. Earlier this year, Interior proposed changing Endangered Species Act regulations in a way that would make it more difficult to declare protected habitat.
"Ryan Zinke has proven over and over again that he is incapable of understanding he works for the people, not his football buddies and their billionaire contacts," Brune said in an email. "Donald Trump needs to fire Zinke rather than allow him to abuse his power to enrich himself and his friends for another day longer."
The June 2017 email exchange is not the only time Zinke and his aides had emailed about whether to meet with billionaires. In April 2017 the secretary agreed to meet entrepreneur Palmer Lucky, whom conservative activist Charles Johnson described as someone "who sold his company to Oculus Rift for $2.5B." In forwarding the request, Scott McEwen, co-author on Zinke's memoir, "American Commander," wrote, "Another Billionaire wants a meeting - up to you guys. I don't know this guy, can't confirm the alleged meeting with the pres., but confirmed he did make some serious cash lately."
Public records also show that Zinke took 66 "personal days" between March 2017 and August 2018, excluding weekends and federal holidays. That total exceeds the 39 annual days off federal senior executives would be given during that same period.
Swift, who noted that Cabinet members are excluded from the standard federal leave system since they often work outside normal work hours and while traveling, said Zinke "generally chooses to work through the weekend and then take his personal time to spend with his wife and children who do not live in D.C."
"During these days outside of the office, the Secretary continues to work on Departmental matters," she said, emphasizing that he has worked "at least 35 weekends" outside Washington and on some days that were marked "personal on his calendar."
Zinke's schedule shows that he worked for nine weekend days, most of them early in his tenure when he was touring national monuments. On 18 weekend days, his schedule included flights as part of his official duties. All those trips were return flights to Washington from his homes in California and Montana, or from national monuments.
Center for Western Priorities spokesman Aaron Weiss, whose group is a sharp critic of Zinke, questioned why the secretary would take so much time off when Cabinet members usually only serve for a few years.
"You don't have a lot of time to get stuff done," Weiss said. "What kind of message does that send if you're not even in the office approximately one week out of four?"
Zinke's aides have rejected the notion that he is resigned to leaving the administration. After Politico reported Thursday night that Zinke had begun discussing the prospect of taking a job with Fox News executives and had told associates he would resign by the end of the year, both the network and Swift dismissed the claims.
"Belongs in The Onion. Laughably false," Swift said in an email, referring to the Fox claim. She rejected the notion that Zinke would leave by the end of the year.
"No one at FOX News has spoken to Zinke about a contributor role," a spokesman for the network said in a statement.
Zinke has not spoken about the inquiries he faces this week, though he tweeted on Wednesday, "Congratulations to all the new members of the House and Senate. I look forward to working with all of you to advance important @Interior priorities like rebuilding @NatlParkService infrastructure, ending #OpioidCrisis in Indian Country, and achieving #EnergyDominance."
While the parties may find common ground on issues like infrastructure and opioids, Zinke is unlikely to find respite when it comes to scrutiny of his time in office.
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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites, Sarah Ellison and Darryl Fears contributed to this report.