Interior secretary latest high-profile Trump admin departure

Brian KNOWLTON
US Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, seen here during March 13, 2018 testimony before the Senate, will be leaving the administration soon, President Donald Trump has announced (AFP Photo/WIN MCNAMEE)

Washington (AFP) - Donald Trump said Saturday that his interior secretary will be leaving soon -- the latest in a series of high-profile departures from an administration beset by turnover and alleged ethical failings.

Zinke's exit will remove the distraction of the ethical issues that have dogged him -- and that reportedly have annoyed Trump -- but is unlikely to mark a shift away from the concerted environmental deregulation that took place during the secretary's tenure at the Interior Department.

"Secretary of the Interior @RyanZinke will be leaving the Administration at the end of the year after having served for a period of almost two years," Trump wrote on Twitter, highlighting the fact that Zinke's tenure was substantially longer than that of some other former top officials in the administration.

"Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation," the president said, adding that a replacement would be announced next week.

The interior secretary is responsible for overseeing conservation and mineral extraction on public land that, if stitched together, would be larger than Mexico.

Zinke tied his departure to the burden of "false allegations" against him.

"I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations. It is better for the President and Interior to focus on accomplishments rather than fictitious allegations," he said in a statement on Twitter.

Zinke, a former Montana congressman, has been the subject of various investigations linked to his real estate holdings in his home state and his actions in office, making him a lightning rod for complaints from Democrats.

They expressed no regrets over his impending departure.

- 'Staggering ethical abuses' -

"Ryan Zinke was one of the most toxic members of the cabinet in the way he treated our environment, our precious public lands, and the way he treated the govt like it was his personal honey pot," tweeted Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer.

"The swamp cabinet will be a little less foul without him."

Nancy Pelosi, the incoming speaker of the House of Representatives, also offered a harsh assessment.

"Secretary Zinke has been a shameless handmaiden for the special interests," she said in a statement.

"His staggering ethical abuses have delivered a serious and lasting blow to America's public lands, environment, clean air and clean water," she said.

Zinke's planned departure will see him leave office before the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives is seated, meaning he will avoid the threat of legislative investigation come January.

Along with Trump's first environmental protection chief Scott Pruitt -- who resigned in July amid a series of scandals over ethical lapses and lavish spending -- Zinke helped spearhead a presidential push to sharply relax environmental regulations and expand energy production.

The Zinke announcement came just a week after another impending high-profile departure -- that of Trump's chief of staff John Kelly -- was made public.

- Riding with Pence -

Trump on Friday tapped Mick Mulvaney -- the director of the Office of Management and Budget -- to serve as chief of staff on an acting basis, setting him up to be the third person to hold the post since the president took office in early 2017.

A series of other top officials have left the Trump White House, including a secretary of state, two national security advisors and an attorney general, as well as Pruitt.

Zinke is one of several members of Trump's cabinet to come under fire over expenditures, including reports that his department was spending nearly $139,000 to upgrade three sets of double doors in his office -- a cost he later said he negotiated down to $75,000.

He had been the subject of some 15 investigations, including one for taking a government security detail with him on a vacation trip to Turkey, according to The Washington Post.

He has also faced criticism over costly US Park Police helicopter flights last year that allowed him to return to Washington for a horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence, and several other flights on non-commercial aircraft.

Zinke, a former Navy SEAL who wore cowboy boots to the office and carried himself with a Western swagger, seemed to emulate Trump when under fire, lashing back rather than retreating.

Last month, when a Democratic congressman said it was time for new leadership at the Interior Department, Zinke suggested in a tweet that his critic had a drinking problem.

"It's hard for him to think straight from the bottom of the bottle," he wrote, a comment that many in Washington thought crossed a line.