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Investigators conclude Trump cabinet official misused his office

The question isn’t whether Ryan Zinke has corruption and ethics problems. The question is whether Republican voters care.


One of the things that made Donald Trump’s presidential cabinet so unusual was the sheer volume of scandals. Four members of the Republican’s cabinet were referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution over the course of three years — a dynamic without precedent in American history.

But even among the scandal-plagued cabinet secretaries, Ryan Zinke stood out as ... special.

As regular readers may recall, Zinke’s tenure as secretary of the Interior was almost cartoonishly provocative: The Montana Republican came under at least 15 different investigations before resigning under a cloud of controversy. In December 2018, The New York Times published a round-up of investigations into Zinke, and it was a strikingly long list. Media Matters also put together a timeline of the former Interior secretary’s “questionable actions and controversies,” and that list was even longer.

One of those controversies continues to haunt him. The New York Times reported yesterday:

Ryan Zinke, the former interior secretary, misused his position and lied to investigators about his involvement in a Montana land deal, repeatedly breaking federal ethics rules, a government watchdog said on Wednesday. The Interior Department’s inspector general found that while in office, Mr. Zinke continued to negotiate with developers about a real estate project in his hometown, Whitefish, Mont. His involvement violated an ethics agreement he had signed upon taking office to not participate in such matters.

What we have here is a two-part controversy. In the first part, according to independent investigators, Zinke misused his office to advance a commercial development project in his hometown. Though he committed to steering clear of the project, investigators pointed to evidence of Zinke engaging in “repeated, ongoing substantive negotiations” with developers.

In the second part of the controversy, the Republican stands accused of having lied about his efforts.

For his part, Zinke slammed the inspector general’s findings as “a political hit job.”

At this point, it may be tempting to think Zinke’s many controversies are no longer relevant. Sure, he faced 15 investigations over the course of his 22-month tenure. And sure, he found it necessary to resign under a cloud of controversy. And sure, he was referred to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. And sure, his former agency’s inspector general concluded that he misused his office.

But what difference does it make now? Zinke left office more than three years ago. Isn’t he yesterday’s news?

The answer is no — because Zinke is currently running for Congress. The Republican is hoping to parlay his many scandals into a revived career as a federal lawmaker on Capitol Hill.

In the abstract, Zinke’s many scandals would dim his future political prospects. But in contemporary GOP politics, the Montanan believes red-state voters won’t much care, because accountability for Republican misconduct is a quaint nicety with little relevance in 2022.

Worse, Zinke’s assumption is probably correct: He’s generally seen as the favorite in his congressional race.