President Donald Trump’s Saturday announcement of the resignation of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke came, via Twitter, with no explanation of why Zinke would be stepping down. But the news broke amid probes into mismanagement and possible ethical misconduct at Zinke’s agency, the most serious of which involves a Department of Justice probe into whether Zinke, a former Montana Congressman, used his position to influence a real-estate deal in the state. If he did, then he could get slapped with a prison sentence of up to five years and a $50,000 fine per violation, the New York Times reports. In a Twitter statement on his resignation, Zinke dismissed these allegations as both “false” and “fictitious.”
The Trump Administration’s turnover rate has already made history. And, though not every Trump Cabinet departure has come amid hints of scandal, Zinke has company. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned in the middle of inquiries into his use of private planes; Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was fired not long after an investigation found he had misused taxpayer dollars; Scott Pruitt, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (considered a Cabinet-level position though not technically a Cabinet member) stepped down in early July amid ethics concerns.
Depending on what the investigations ultimately conclude, Zinke’s exact place in the history of Cabinets marred by scandal is to be determined — but either way, such scandal is nothing new.
For example, a Secretary of the Interior was involved in the most infamous Cabinet scandal in American history: the Teapot Dome Scandal of the 1920s, in which Albert Fall, who held the job in President Harding’s administration, secretly accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in Liberty Bonds in exchange for leasing former Navy oil reserves in Wyoming to a private company. (As the New York Times pointed out Monday morning, it can be tricky to strike a balance between Interior’s twin mandates of conservation and oil-drilling, making the Interior Department role especially prone to conflict-of-interest allegations.) Journalists and U.S. Senators investigating Fall zeroed in on the fact that there was no competitive bidding for such a hot commodity, raising questions about whether he secured the best possible deal for himself instead of for his employer, the federal government. He became the first Cabinet secretary whose actions in office led him to be convicted of a crime and the first former Cabinet member to go to prison.
But Teapot Dome isn’t the only major scandal lurking in the Cabinet’s past.
Under John Tyler, the entire Cabinet resigned in 1841 after the President vetoed a second national bank bill. A decade earlier, in 1831, Andrew Jackson dissolved his Cabinet after the wives of Cabinet members shunned Secretary of War John Eaton because his wife Margaret O’Neale “Peggy” Timberlake was rumored to be promiscuous. (In place of the Cabinet, he came to rely on an informal “Kitchen Cabinet” made up of newspaper editors, a strategy that appears similar to the working style favored by President Trump, who has been known to rely on prominent figures such as FOX anchors Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs.)
Experts suggest that Cabinet scandals may continue to become more common. After all, the more polarized politics becomes, the more Cabinet members are likely to be scrutinized.
“When you have divided government, as Reagan did, your scandals will be more noticed,” points out Elizabeth Sanders, professor of Government at Cornell University.
In December of 1982, Ronald Reagan’s EPA head Anne Gorsuch became the first Cabinet member to be cited by the House for contempt of Congress after refusing to turn over subpoenaed documents for 160 Superfund sites, as part of an investigation into whether the agency had made sweetheart deals with polluting companies and had delayed cleanups for political reasons. She was forced to step down in March 1983. Seven months later, the other top environmental policy guru, Secretary of the Interior James Watt, was also forced to resign after boasting offensively of the diversity of the commissioners responsible for coal-leasing on public lands. (Later, it was charged that almost immediately after he left he made $500,000 for hooking up prominent Republicans and wealthy developers with Housing and Urban Development money that allegedly wasn’t being used to build low-income housing, all under the HUD chief Sam Pierce’s nose. A judge ordered him to pay a $5,000 fine and perform 500 hours of community service.)
Reagan’s administration may have been particularly dogged by scandal, Sanders adds, because a pro-business philosophy can lead a president to recruit advisers who are not used to the visibility of a high-level public-sector role. Reagan, for instance, ran on ending the big government of the New Deal that had been growing since the early 1930s. His ideology focused on the idea that “government is not the solution, it is the problem,” as Sanders puts it. “When you try to privatize government and appoint people who hate the government, you’ll have scandals.”
But scandal isn’t just for Republican Administrations. During the Clinton Administration, Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary was scrutinized both for lavish spending and for claims that she took a meeting with Chinese officials in exchange for a $25,000 donation to her favorite charity. (Attorney General Janet Reno cleared her, but called for a closer look into her aides’ actions.) Another Clinton Cabinet member, Henry Cisneros, who would resign as HUD Secretary, was the subject of the longest independent-counsel probe in U.S. history (1995 to 2006), sparked by an ex-mistress’ claims that he had lied to the FBI about money he had given her.
As for Trump’s administration, Sanders believes his hires, many of whom had been more used to working in the private sector than the public sector, may be giving him the same problems that Reagan faced — but that doesn’t necessarily mean former members of his Cabinet will decide to stay out of public office in the future.
Though Ryan Zinke said in early November that he didn’t want to run for Governor of Montana in 2020 because he wanted to remain in the President’s Cabinet, now that his time in that position is up at year’s end, it remains to be seen whether he will reconsider a run change his mind.