It seemed like a perfectly reasonable question. At a House Natural Resources Committee hearing yesterday, Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii), a fourth-generation Japanese-American, asked Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about his agency’s grant programs to preserve World War II-era internment camps.
“Oh, konnichiwa,” Zinke replied.
There was apparently a momentary silence in the committee room; the Democratic congresswoman corrected his Japanese; and the hearing proceeded. That said, several other lawmakers, including Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), were eager to admonish the cabinet secretary today for his “flippant” and “juvenile” comment.
But before we could catch our breath on this Zinke story, the Associated Press published another.
Trophy hunters are packed on a new U.S. advisory board created to help rewrite federal rules for importing the heads and hides of African elephants, lions and rhinos. That includes some members with direct ties to President Donald Trump and his family.
A review by The Associated Press of the backgrounds and social media posts of the 16 board members appointed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke indicates they will agree with his position that the best way to protect critically threatened or endangered species is by encouraging American hunters to shoot some of them.
Shortly before Thanksgiving, the Trump administration announced the end of an Obama-era ban on hunters bringing the trophy heads of elephants they’d killed in Africa back to the U.S. The move immediately drew fire, even from some prominent Republicans, and Donald Trump soon after suspended his own administration’s policy. Via Twitter, the president said it’d be difficult to change his mind about “this horror show.”
Two weeks later, the Trump administration reversed course again, and now Zinke’s advisory board wildlife-protection board is stacked with trophy hunters.
All of which serves as a striking reminder: when the Interior secretary make headlines, it’s probably not for flattering reasons.
I started taking stock of Zinke-related controversies, and was a little surprised by the size of the list.
There’s the cabinet secretary’s controversial travel habits. And his alleged intimidation tactics against Republican senators during the health care fight. And the investigation into whether he reassigned an Interior scientist who disclosed how climate change affects Alaska Native communities.
There are the resignations at the National Park System Advisory Board. And his sweetheart deal for Florida on coastal oil drilling. And the story about Zinke mistakenly using wildfire preparedness funds to pay for one of the secretary’s unrelated helicopter tours. And the story about his previously undisclosed shares in a gun company.
There have also been questions about Zinke’s wife saddling department staffers with extra work. The Federal Election Commission, meanwhile, has raised questions about a leadership PAC affiliated with Zinke during his time in Congress. Just last month, two scientists resigned from Interior after Zinke demanded confidential energy data. Around the same time, a pair of casino-owning American Indian tribes accused Zinke “of illegally blocking their plans to expand operations in Connecticut – a delay that stands to benefit politically connected gambling giant MGM Resorts International.”
I realize this administration has its share of controversial cabinet secretaries, but it’d be tough to top the sheer volume of questions surrounding the Interior secretary.