In politics, you need a good villain. It is far easier for environmentalists to rail against Donald Trump for weakening the Clean Water Act than it is to rail against Proposed Rule 83 FR 32227. And it was far easier for Democrats to criticize Scott Pruitt—the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator who resigned in June under not so much a cloud of corruption as a thundering cumulonimbus of it—than it has been for them to focus attention on Andrew Wheeler, his quieter and more effective replacement.
In the new year, Ryan Zinke, the secretary of the interior, seemed certain to catapult into that top tier of political nemeses for Democrats. Like Pruitt, Zinke excels at generating bizarre scandals; also like Pruitt, his own heroic vision of himself seems to survive any amount of bad press. House Democrats, salivating over their new oversight power, had already promised to subpoena Zinke over a number of issues, including a sweetheart $300 million contract for electricity in Puerto Rico that he allegedly gave to a small power company based in his home state of Montana.
But Zinke’s star turn is not to be. On Saturday morning, President Trump announced that Zinke will step down at the end of the year. David Bernhardt, the current deputy secretary and a former oil lobbyist, will take over the department.
Little is likely to change under Bernhardt. The Interior Department oversees the nation’s public lands, which encompass nearly a quarter of its total area. This makes the agency a kind of extra-powerful environmental regulator, especially out West, where it owns 47 percent of the territory. The department also includes the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Under Zinke, the agency has gone on a spree of deregulation. It has cut more than 1 million acres of wilderness out of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah and with help from Congress, it has opened up 19 million acres in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. The agency is also in the process of overhauling the Endangered Species Act, the muscular 1973 law that helped save the bald eagle, the gray wolf, and the American crocodile from extinction.
Many of Zinke’s efforts seemed particularly helpful for fossil-fuel companies, which can lease public land from the government and then sell the oil or coal they find there. Near the end of his term, President Barack Obama blocked the Interior Department from releasing any land for coal mining. Zinke, by contrast, has sped up the process of obtaining these leases for new oil and gas drilling.
Every single one of these initiatives is almost certain to continue under Bernhardt. What will not continue is Zinke’s penchant for publicity. The man embraced his role as the Cabinet’s cowboy. He arrived to his first day at the department on horseback, wearing a Stetson. A former Navy SEAL, he transplanted an arcane military ritual onto his new life as a downtown bureaucrat: Whenever he walked into the Interior Department’s downtown-D.C. headquarters, he ordered his staff to fly a special flag.
In practice, he was less outdoorsman, more hapless dad. He struggled to rig a fishing reel correctly. One of his minor scandals involved “Make America Great Again”–branded socks. Last summer, he reportedly threatened Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican of Alaska, over her vote against Obamacare repeal. Then, seemingly after realizing that she is in charge of funding the Interior Department, he promptly backtracked. (Zinke has called the claim that he threatened Murkowski “laughable,” but his threats were first reported by Dan Sullivan, Alaska’s other Republican senator.)
That hubris made him a terrific target for Democrats. They hoped to use his personal misdeeds to point to the larger pattern of deregulation and industry friendliness at his department. Maybe, eventually, some day, when the public hated him enough, they could force him to resign.
Zinke went and resigned for them. “After 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations,” he said Saturday.
In resigning, Zinke reveals the power of Democrats’ new ability to oversee the Trump administration. Zinke is the first casualty of the 2018 blue wave: the first Cabinet official who stepped down in the face of subpoenas. He left, in fact, to avoid facing subpoenas. Yet in resigning, he also shows the limits of that same new power. Democrats can no longer use Zinke’s hubris to get people to pay attention to the Trump administration’s larger set of policies at the Interior Department.
Zinke, with all his antics, was set to be the great environmental villain of 2019. Now Democrats will need to find a new one.