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The Energy 202: Federal investigators concluded Ryan Zinke's MAGA socks violated law

with Paulina Firozi


Investigators have found that former interior secretary Ryan Zinke violated federal law by tweeting out a picture of himself wearing socks adorned with the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!”

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, the independent agency that investigates possible Hatch Act violations, found in December that Zinke broke the 80-year-old law, which restricts most federal employees from using their positions in government to engage in partisan politics. Like many other Trump officials, Zinke did not face any consequences for the violation beyond a warning. 

Zinke, who resigned from President Trump's Cabinet amid multiple probes of his conduct in office, wore the socks during a hike at an official government event in June at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. A photograph of Zinke wearing the blue-and-red socks emblazoned with the president's face, which was tweeted by the secretary's official government Twitter account, drew immediate scrutiny.  

“Secretary Zinke engaged in political activity when he wore the above-referenced socks,” Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the Hatch Act Unit at the Office of the Special Counsel, wrote in a Dec. 20 letter to Campaign for Accountability, a left-leaning nonprofit watchdog organization. The letter, which was not previously released to the public, was provided to The Energy 202.

“Because Secretary Zinke wore these socks to an official event and also authorized their display on his official Twitter account, he violated the Hatch Act’s prohibition against using his official position to influence an election,” she wrote. 

The conclusion of the investigation came at the tail end of Zinke's tenure — after he submitted his letter of resignation, but before he officially left office. Zinke received a warning letter on Dec. 20 informing him of the breach, according to Zachary Kurz, spokesman for the Office of the Special Counsel. That was five days after he submitted his resignation under pressure from the White House. Zinke left his post in January.

Official guidelines for federal workers specify that donning “Make America Great Again” gear while on the clock is prohibited. Zinke avoided punishment because, soon after learning the tweet could violate the law, he directed his staff to delete the post and issued an apology. 

"[W]e do not believe that his violation was willful,” Galindo-Marrone told the Campaign for Accountability, which originally filed a complaint over the socks last year with the Office of the Special Counsel.

Zinke was pushed out of the administration because of an inquiry into a Montana land deal he struck with the chairman of oil services giant Halliburton, which the Department of the Interior’s inspector general referred to prosecutors at the Justice Department.

Daniel Stevens, the executive director of the Campaign for Accountability, said investigators' findings undermine Zinke's claim that he did nothing wrong in office. “This contributed to the downfall of Zinke, in my opinion,” Stevens said.

Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said she was not surprised by the Office of the Special Counsel's determination, calling Zinke's actions “a really clear violation of the Hatch Act.”

Cabinet officials are often spared the harshest possible sanction under the law, which is decided by the president but could include a civil penalty of as much as $1,000, a reduction in grade or the removal from office.

Presidential hopeful Julián Castro, the secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama, was previously found to have violated the Hatch Act by praising Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primary in an interview with journalist Katie Couric, though OSC did not propose any penalty.

So was Kathleen Sebelius, Obama's secretary of health and human services, who weighed in on the North Carolina gubernatorial election in 2012 during an official speech. She reimbursed the government for travel to the state.

Zinke is hardly the first Trump official to run afoul of the anti-campaigning law. In November, the OSC determined that a half-dozen White House officials violated the Hatch Act when they used their official Twitter accounts to promote political messages in support of Trump. Like Zinke, the six officials, which included principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah and deputy director of communications Jessica Ditto, received warning letters rather than disciplinary action after deleting the tweets.

At least one Trump official, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, has been unapologetic about her previous violations.

Speaking to the press last week, Conway put down former vice president Joe Biden, a contender in the 2020 presidential race, which prompted reporters to remind her of her previous run-ins with the Hatch Act. Last year, the Office of the Special Counsel said she violated the law by weighing in on the 2017 special Senate race in Alabama.

“Blah, blah, blah,” Conway said. “If you're trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it's not going to work. Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”


— 2020 watch: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has insisted he’s the only Democratic candidate making climate change a priority, criticized the climate plans recently put forward by former vice president Joe Biden. “I have to express disappointment that the vice president’s proposals really lacked teeth, and they lack ambition that is necessary to defeat the climate crisis,” Inslee told reporters, according to MyNorthwest. He cited the timeline in Biden’s plan, which calls for the country to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. “We don’t have 30 years to get this job done. We’ve got to start acting now,” Inslee said.

The latest Inslee plan: The Washington governor also announced a plan to combat climate change through foreign policy, which includes putting climate requirements in new trade agreements and pressuring other countries to cut fossil-fuel subsidies.

DNC says no to climate debate: Rejecting the calls of many 2020 candidates for a climate-focused debate, the Democratic National Committee told the Inslee campaign this week that it would not go forward with the idea. "While climate change is at the top of our list, the DNC will not be holding entire debates on a single issue area," DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement to the Energy 202. Inslee, who had written a letter to the DNC asking for such a debate, criticized the committee for “silencing the voices of Democratic activists.”

— “Feel good" FEMA reports: The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general conducted a review of its own practices after the auditors’ boss, John V. Kelly, called on the oversight agency to produce “feel good reports” when it reviewed Federal Emergency Management Agency’s performance following disasters. For example, after catastrophic and deadly floods in Louisiana in 2016, the watchdog’s review concluded the response was a “remarkable,” “resilient and mission focused” effort and success. In all, the Louisiana report and a dozen others were retracted from the agency’s website. “Last month it released a 14-month internal review of how Kelly, a career government auditor who rose to acting inspector general in late 2017, chose to flatter FEMA’s staff in some reports, instead of hold them accountable,” The Post’s Lisa Rein and Kimberly Kindy report. “Investigators determined that Kelly didn’t just direct his staff to remove negative findings. He potentially compromised their objectivity by praising FEMA’s work ethic to the auditors.”

 — Nearly two years later: The Senate confirmed Susan Combs to be the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for policy management and budget, nearly two years after she was first nominated to the post. Combs was approved in a bipartisan 57-36 vote. “President Trump first nominated Combs in July 2017, but various senators blocked a floor vote on her through holds. He renominated her two more times,” E&E News reports. “For nearly two years, the Combs has been serving at the department in an acting capacity, overseeing a broad portfolio that included the proposed Interior reorganization, fish, wildlife and parks.” Her nomination was challenged by environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity.

— Questions over mining near Grand Canyon: The Trump administration is pushing back against a bill to ban mining near the Grand Canyon. During a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, Michael Nedd, the deputy director of operations at Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, told lawmakers the agency “has concerns about the size and scope of the withdrawal contained in the legislation,” HuffPost reports. “He noted that the Trump administration has prioritized domestic mineral production and that uranium is among those that Interior has identified as ‘critical’ to economic and national security,” the report adds. “If Congress moves forward with a permanent mining ban near the Grand Canyon, Interior recommends ‘boundary adjustments to ensure local availability of mineral materials for nearby communities and to enable environmentally responsible development of critical minerals, such as uranium.’” Meanwhile, an Interior spokeswoman said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has said he has “no reason” to support removing the ban.

— A nuclear shift: The Energy Department announced it plans to recategorize some radioactive waste and shift how it disposes waste from nuclear weapons.  The department said the change, which will label some high-level waste as low-level, could save $40 billion in cleanup costs and reduce cleanup time, the Associated Press reports. The Los Angeles Times adds the planned change “triggered immediate opposition in Washington state, South Carolina and Idaho, which contend that the Energy Department wants to bury dangerous waste in shallow pits.”

— The cost of climate action: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), one of the sponsors of the Green New Deal, told the Hill she believes properly addressing global warming will cost at least $10 trillion. “I think we really need to get to $10 trillion to have a shot,” she said. “I know it’s a ton. . . . I don’t think anyone wants to spend that amount of money. It's not a fun number to say, I’m not excited to say we need to spend $10 trillion on climate, but . . . it’s just the fact of the scenario.” It is unclear where the figure comes from.

— Corn wars: A report from the Government Accountability Office found the Renewable Fuel Standard — the federal program mandating that a certain amount of biofuels, including ethanol, is mixed into the nation’s gas and diesel supply — has not led to lower gas prices or reduced greenhouse-gas emissions, Bloomberg News reports. The report, requested by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who has sponsored measures to eliminate or reduce the requirement, found “prices outside of the corn-rich Midwest likely rose by a few pennies a gallon at the pump because of the Renewable Fuel Standard, while falling slightly in areas with ethanol plants,” per the report. “In addition, the GAO found that ‘most of the experts we interviewed generally agreed that to date the RFS has likely had a limited effect, if any, on greenhouse gas emissions.’”

— A trip to the Arctic: Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) led a bipartisan group of lawmakers on a trip to visit the Arctic to get a close-up view of issues related to energy and climate change that heavily impact the region. “I've been trying to grow the awareness of Arctic issues for years.” Murkowski told reporters, according to E&E News. “It is a part of the globe where there is so much happening right now, but people don't appreciate that. They don't think about the Arctic, so I'm trying to get people to think about the Arctic.” Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) were also part of the congressional delegation.


— Another carbon record: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced this week the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit another record high last month, with levels at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii peaking at 414.7 parts per million. The agency noted the jump, compared with May 2018, is the second-highest annual increase on record. It is also the seventh consecutive year with such a steep increase of carbon concentrations worldwide.  

— “We’re in flood-fighting mode”: Towns along the Mississippi River are preparing for water levels to reach their second-highest at the end of the week. The Wall Street Journal reports several areas, such as Grafton, Ill., have been “rushing in recent days to shore up defenses against the raging river … following a severe winter and extremely wet spring.” The river in Grafton has been above flood stage for more than 70 days. “We’re in flood-fighting mode,” said Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker during a visit there.

— The Gulf Coast braces for floods: The Gulf Coast and the South are bracing for more heavy rains and potential flooding in the days ahead. It is the latest in a series of seemingly relentless storms to hit the nation, The Post’s Ian Livingston reports. “Much of the country has been in a long-term wet spell, as seen in the wettest 12 months on record nationally, but parts of the Gulf Coast and Southeast are running rain deficits. With high pressure dominating, the Southeast has also been scorched by record heat in recent weeks.”



  • The 5th Washington Oil & Gas Forum continues.

Coming Up

  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a legislative hearing on June 11. 
  • BP’s chief economist presents the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 at the Atlantic Council on June 13.

— Fodder for your next nightmare: Research reveals the translucent fangs belonging to the dragonfish are made of hydroxyapatite, The Post’s Ben Guarino reports. “That’s the same tough substance, a calcium mineral, that builds our bones and our tooth enamel.” What makes their teeth unique are the tiny structures within their teeth, made up of “extremely small arrangements of hydroxyapatite and collagen” which “transmits most wavelengths of light instead of scattering it.”