Journalist finally gets to ask Interior Secretary Zinke if he threatened a senator over her health care vote. Short answer: Yes.

His non-denial got caught on video

Interior Secretary Zinke meets with reporters in Bunkerville, Nevada, 7/30/2017

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has been in the hot seat since the Alaska Dispatch News reported that Zinke threatened to use the weight of the Interior Department to hurt Alaskans if Senator Lisa Murkowski did not vote for the so-called “skinny repeal” health care bill.

By now it’s been widely reported that Secretary Zinke’s overtly political, questionably ethical, and undoubtedly foolish gambit failed. Senator Murkowski — a powerful appropriator who chairs Senate committees that oversee and fund the Interior Department — didn’t just vote down the “skinny repeal,” she responded in kind by postponing votes for three key positions inside of the Interior Department.

The press finally got the opportunity over the weekend in Nevada to ask Secretary Zinke about the news reports:

Reporter: “Mr. Secretary, what’s your account of the conversations with [Alaska] Senators Murkowski and Sullivan?”
Secretary Zinke: “I talk to Senator Murkowski and Senator Sullivan all the time.”
Reporter: “A lot’s been said about…”
Secretary Zinke: “A lot’s been said about a lot of things, but I talk to them all the time. We get along well.”
Reporter: “It’s been characterized as threats.”
Secretary Zinke: “Uh, you know, the moon has been characterized as those things, too. So, I think it’s laughable.”

Sure, many have said the moon is made of cheese, but no one characterizes the moon as a threat. It’s just not something anyone says. His bizarre response might have been an attempt at humor or — more likely — an attempt to distract from a legitimate question: Did a cabinet secretary threaten to use the power of his agency to punish a U.S. Senator for a vote?

But his classic non-denial denial never answers the reporter’s question. The secretary could have said, unequivocally, that he issued no such threats. But, instead, Secretary Zinke equivocated, leaving us to understand that he did make a call to Senator Murkowski and he did issue an ultimatum.

This is not only cynical, it’s also deeply troubling.

Secretary Zinke is charged with overseeing hundreds of millions of acres of public lands across the West. The Interior Department and the agency’s decisions impact the lives of millions of Westerners — especially those (like myself) who live in rural areas. His department manages our national parks, decides where development occurs, and where trails can be built. It oversees massive and critically important water projects that provide irrigation water for agriculture and municipal water for millions living across the region.

If Secretary Zinke is so willing to threaten retribution against his political allies — he and Senator Murkowski see eye-to-eye on many issues relating to energy and the environment — what about Westerners represented by elected officials who Zinke may perceive as adversaries? Will the secretary work to undercut other members of Congress who may not support President Trump’s policy agenda? In New Mexico, Colorado, California, Oregon, and Washington — states with multiple Democrats elected to national office — will Secretary Zinke make decisions based on science and facts? Or will he make decisions intended to harm elected officials and their constituents?

The West deserve serious answers to these serious questions from Secretary Zinke.