Interior Department Now Base for Ryan Zinke’s Pay-to-Play Scheme with NRA
The NRA’s campaign to turn Ryan Zinke — who was once a principled legislator on the gun issue — has taken nearly a decade, but succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. The former Navy SEAL was useful to the gun lobby as a freshman Congressman from Montana, but his March 2017 confirmation as Secretary of the Interior opened up new possibilities in their symbiotic, pay-to-play relationship.
Zinke is now rewarding the NRA with one payoff after another — the most recent being Interior support for the regressive, and dangerous, “Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act” (SHARE Act) and the appointment of NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre’s wife to the board of the National Park Foundation.
An Early Pattern
Ryan Zinke’s record as a Navy SEAL is remarkably similar to his record as a politician: a tale of great promise eventually scuttled by petty corruption.
Zinke served as a SEAL from 1985 to 2008. He was a decorated officer who received two Bronze Stars, four Meritorious Service Medals, two Joint Service Commendation Medals, two Defense Meritorious Service Medals, and an Army Commendation Medal. Initially, Navy leadership viewed Zinke as a “superstar” with the potential to become an Admiral.
Any hope that Zinke had to rise to that rank, however, disappeared when he improperly billed the government for personal travel to Montana when he was a mid-level SEAL Team 6 officer in the late 1990s. He was forced to repay $211 for one of the trips, and his commanding officer, now-retired Vice Admiral Albert M. Calland III, “gave him a fitness report that [he] thought would not allow him to get to [the rank of] captain.” The report worked. “He never got command,” said Adm. Calland.
Later, Zinke exaggerated his service record in his autobiography, “American Commander,” and displayed the SEALs’ insignia on his congressional campaign bus in violation of Defense Department guidelines against politicizing the symbol.
The Buying of a Legislator
Zinke left the Navy in 2008 and ran as a Republican for the Montana state Senate, successfully. Initially, the new senator’s political views were quite moderate. Zinke supported sensible gun laws and told Project Vote Smart, “I believe that background checks are prudent and necessary.”
As a result, he received only a 42% score from the NRA’s Political Victory Fund in 2008. The president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, Gary Marbut, gave Zinke an 8% rating and had the following to say about him:
When Zinke was in the [Montana state] Legislature, he and I had two or three spirited conversations wherein he voiced the strong opinion that .50 caliber rifles are far too dangerous for civilians to be allowed to own. He felt very strongly about that then. Then, about the time he announced his candidacy for the U.S. House, he sent me a card saying he’d changed his position on .50 caliber rifles. Yes, a sudden, election season conversion.
Zinke also earned Marbut’s ire for speaking out against the carrying of firearms in National Parks on the floor of the Montana Senate in 2009.
At this time, Zinke was also quite moderate on environmental issues. In 2010, he signed on to a letter to President Obama and then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi that urged them to enact sweeping climate and clean energy legislation. The letter described climate change as “a threat multiplier for instability in the most volatile regions of the world” and said that the cost of inaction would be “catastrophic,” with “unprecedented economic consequences.” “The clean energy and climate challenge is America’s new space race,” the letter declared boldly.
Soon thereafter, Zinke formed a front group called the Montana Firearms Institute to insulate himself against pro-gun attacks. The group was supposed to “advocate for Montana’s firearms and shooting sport industries, promote Montana’s friendly climate for firearms manufacturing, and champion the Second Amendment,” but apparently did nothing in practice.
When Montana’s at-large congressional seat came open in 2014, Zinke decided to run. At that time, his relationship with the NRA was lukewarm at best. During a Republican primary debate that May, Zinke indicated he had changed his position on .50-caliber sniper rifles because he believed most Montanans wanted these weapons sold to civilians. But he also indicated he had sided against the NRA in the past “because [he] didn’t think it was right to strip [the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks] of their historic right and duty to regulate hunting, ammunitions and weapons for hunting.” The NRA, for their part, gave Zinke a slightly improved rating of 57%.
After prevailing in the primary, Zinke faced Demorat John Lewis in the general election. Lewis had no voting record (he had previously served as an aide to U.S. Senator Max Baucus), but still received an AQ rating from the NRA after telling them what they wanted to hear on their questionnaire. This so emboldened Lewis that he began to attack Zinke as the pro-gun control candidate in the race.
By this time, NRA had become an affiliate of the GOP for all intents and purposes. The organization gave Democratic congressional candidates just $40,800 in the 2014 election cycle compared to $766,662 for Republican candidates — but refused to endorse Zinke or fund his campaign.
This clearly bothered Zinke and his response was sharp. In October 2014, he released a TV ad in which he bragged about being “anti-[gun] control and a life member of the National Rifle Association.” He then attacked John Lewis, claiming that Lewis was a supporter of gun control because he had accepted campaign contributions from Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. The ad also featured images of Zinke hunting with a shotgun.
Zinke ended up winning the race against Lewis comfortably, but his experience of butting heads with the gun lobby changed him profoundly. Once he got to Washington, he began to consistently vote with the NRA, reversing himself on several previous positions. By the time he came up for reelection in 2016, his NRA grade had increased from 57% to a near-perfect 93%.
In return for his change of heart, the NRA gave Zinke $4,000 in direct contributions and $6,868 in indirect expenditures from the NRA Institute for Legislative Action during the 2016 election cycle.
Zinke also quickly reversed himself on conversation issues, becoming a climate denier focused on the domestic development of fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal. This actually further endeared him to the NRA because, as Matt Ashley of the Center for American Progress wrote in 2014:
As part of a major effort since 2008 to bolster its lobbying and political power, the oil and gas industry has steadily expanded its contributions and influence over several major conservative sportsmen’s organizations, including Safari Club International…the National Rifle Association…and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation. The first two organizations have assumed an increasingly active and vocal role in advancing energy industry priorities, even when those positions are in apparent conflict with the interests of hunters and anglers who are their rank-and-file members … The growing influence of the oil and gas industry on these powerful groups is reshaping the politics, policies, and priorities of American land and wildlife conservation.
Since 2013, Zinke has taken $345,000 in campaign donations from companies that drill for oil and gas on public lands. The League of Conservation Voters gives him a 3 percent lifetime score.
Zinke Rides His Horse
Both Zinke and the NRA made early, high-risk bets on Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. The NRA endorsed Trump on May 20, 2016. Just five days later, Zinke did so, on “Fox & Friends.” The NRA would ultimately spend a whopping $30 million from their treasure chest to get Trump elected.
These bets paid off handsomely when Trump stunned the world and beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the controversial general election on November 8.
After sticking their necks out for Trump, the NRA and Zinke expected a reward, and the rewards came quick in a classic case of revolving-door politics.
Trump tapped Zinke for the Interior Secretary position on December 13, 2016. Zinke had no real qualifications for the position. He was a freshman member of Congress who had served on the House Natural Resources Committee for a few months. Media accounts also noted that he was “an avid hunter and fisherman.”
That was enough for the NRA. NRA-ILA executive director Chris Cox published an op-ed piece in Roll Call on Valentine’s Day in which he declared that Zinke’s confirmation would “mark the end of an era of hostility toward hunters and sportsmen at the Interior Department” without citing a single specific example to support that thesis. [There is some rambling about “overreach” and “environmental extremists.”]
The U.S. Senate was also not deterred by Zinke’s lack of experience. They confirmed Zinke as head of the Department of the Interior on March 1, 2017. A wannabe climate denier had inherited an agency whose mission is to “protect and manage the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage; provide scientific and other information about those resources; and honor its trust responsibilities or special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated island communities.” The Interior Secretary controls drilling, mining and conservation policies across more than 500 million acres of public land.
Zinke played the cowboy maverick role the NRA has created for him to a ‘T,’ quoting Teddy Roosevelt and commuting to work on a horse named Tonto on his first day on the job.
His payback to the NRA was immediate. Shortly after dismounting Tonto, Zinke attended a signing ceremony with Chris Cox and signed an order which repealed a plan to phase out the use lead ammunition and fish tackle on lands, waters, and facilities managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service by 2022. It was done so quickly that the NRA’s statement congratulating Zinke on his confirmation by the Senate also thanks him for repealing the lead plan.
In his first three months as Secretary of the Interior, Zinke hosted NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre and NRA-ILA executive director Chris Cox for two private meetings. He also traveled to Atlanta with President Donald Trump to speak at the NRA annual meeting.
The National Park Service’s acting director, Michael Reynolds, prepared a June 30 memo for the legislative counsel at the Department of the Interior which highlighted several “substantial issues” the agency has with the SHARE Act. The NPS raised objections to being prevented from regulating the hunting of bears and wolves in Alaska’s wildlife preserves, including the practice of killing hibernating bear cubs in their dens. The agency also wished to continue regulating commercial and recreational fishing within National Park boundaries, and commenting on development projects outside park boundaries that could affect the parks. The SHARE ACT would prevent them from doing both.
Reynolds’ concerns were disregarded entirely by the agency’s overseer. Reynolds comments were crossed out on the memo by a Trump political appointee at Interior, Casey Hammond. Furthermore, according to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Reynolds and other NPS officials were ordered not to discuss the matter with Congress.
Ruch, too, was grim about the SHARE Act. “These are not minor matters,” he said. “These changes would forfeit whole spheres of national park stewardship.”
He wasn’t kidding. Among the provisions described above, the SHARE Act would also:
· Eliminate the longstanding and successful licensing and registration process for civilians who wish to obtain firearm silencers. The 1,360,023 silencers already in civilian hands (as of April 2017) could be transferred through private sales, with no background check required.
· Require the government to destroy records of silencer sales/transfers.
· Prevent the government from classifying ammunition as “armor-piercing,” thereby guaranteeing its sale on the civilian market.
· Nullify state gun laws preventing the possession of dangerous firearms, allowing individuals in states with weak gun laws to transport their assault rifles and other weapons through any state in the country.
A bill that was supposed to be about conservation had become a giant giveaway to the NRA, tailor-made to move more military-style accessories and ammunition into the civilian market. In an Action Alert to their members on September 8, 2017, the NRA credited Zinke with authoring the 2017 version of the SHARE Act, writing:
Different versions of the SHARE Act have been pending for a number of years, and the legislation has passed the U.S. House of Representatives during each of the last three sessions of Congress, most recently in February 2016. Few, however, expected that then-President Obama would have signed the bill into law. Gun owners, however, now have a friend at the White House in President Trump and at the Department of Interior in Secretary Ryan Zinke. Fittingly, the current version of the SHARE Act is the most ambitious and consequential yet.
Zinke, however, was not done with his favors for the NRA.
On August 28, Susan LaPierre — the wife of NRA CEO and executive vice president Wayne LaPierre — posted an exclusive and eyebrow-raising piece of news to her personal Facebook page:
Last Thursday, I had a true ‘mountaintop moment’ as I met with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to accept my newest role: serving on the Board of Directors of the National Park Foundation. As a commissioned Board member appointed by Secretary Zinke, I join a distinguished group of national leaders and conservationists.
Along with her message, LaPierre attached four photos: three of her receiving the new commission from Zinke and one of her with NRA-ILA executive director Chris Cox, who is seen holding documentation of her new appointment and grinning from ear to ear.
The Department of the Interior, however, wasn’t eager to brag about Susan LaPierre’s new position on social media. Neither the department nor the National Park Foundation released any information to the media about the appointment.
Recently, sportsmen have become disillusioned with Zinke, as noted by Rebecca Worby in High Country News last week:
In recent months, Zinke has signed orders to advance energy independence, including one that overturned a 2016 moratorium on new coal leases. He also signed an order to open up an area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. One of the developments most concerning to the sporting community is Zinke’s review of 27 national monuments, which includes recommendations to reduce the size of multiple monuments including Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. The lack of transparency in the review process left many sportsmen frustrated, with the Interior Department doling out bits of information over the course of the review but withholding the official report on Zinke’s recommended changes.
Chris Cox wrote an op-ed for Fox News on September 1, 2017, saying “[Zinke’s] comprehensive review of national monument designations was so critically important to America’s sportsmen.”
Maybe he had the chance to read it.
The NRA attempts to portray Ryan Zinke as “pro-gun from day one,” but nothing could be further from the truth. Zinke began his career as a very moderate politician who supported sensible regulation of firearms. His current abuse of power at the Interior Department is a sad chapter in the history of a man who could have become a gifted legislator and invaluable public servant if not for his avarice.
One gets the sense that Zinke will continue to milk his pay-for-play relationship with the NRA for all it’s worth. With Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s noose tightening, it’s difficult to imagine him (politically) surviving the inevitable fall of Trump. The clock is ticking.