We now have a fourth entry in the growing list of top Trump administration officials under fire for using noncommercial flights: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Politico first reported Thursday night on Zinke's use of private flights to travel from Las Vegas to his home state of Montana and also for a visit to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Then The Washington Post filled in more of the details.
And the details seem pretty damning.
Not only did Zinke charter a $12,000-plus private plane in June for a trip between two airports that run regular commercial flights, but he did so using a plane owned by Wyoming oil and gas executives. Oh, and it meant he got to spend the night at his home. Oh, and he was in Nevada in the first place for what appear to be pretty political purposes.
Here are The Post's Drew Harwell and Lisa Rein coloring it all in:
Zinke took the private charter flight in late June after giving a motivational speech to the Vegas Golden Knights, the city’s new National Hockey League team. The team is owned by Bill Foley, chairman of Fidelity National Financial. Employees and political action committees associated with the financial services company donated a total of $199,523 to Zinke’s two congressional campaigns, Federal Election Commission records show.
Zinke was in the Las Vegas area that day after flying on a commercial Southwest Airlines jet from Reno, Nev., where he spoke the night before at a nearby dinner in Lake Tahoe held by the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a conservative group of attorneys general backed by the Koch brothers.
Just before the Golden Knights dinner, Zinke had appeared in the tiny rural Nevada town of Pahrump to announce a routine local funding grant from Congress to rural communities.
So the official event in Nevada seems to be the Pahrump announcement, which was bookended by two political events. Zinke then took the flight back to Montana, stayed the night at his home in Whitefish, and spoke the next day at the annual meeting of the Western Governors Association. And later that afternoon, Politico reports, he also did a photo shoot for GQ Magazine, which ran a story calling him President Trump's “cowboy enforcer.”
— GQ Magazine (@GQMagazine) July 31, 2017
Zinke's spokeswoman told The Post that Zinke needed to charter a flight because flying commercial wouldn't have gotten him back to Montana in time for the Western Governors Association meeting. But the question from there is whether he could have flown commercial had he not attended the NHL team's event.
E&E News's Zack Colman connected some more dots and figured he probably could have:
[The Pahrump] event concluded at 3:40 p.m. PDT, according to his public schedule.
Zinke boarded a flight to Las Vegas and arrived at the Red Rock Hotel and Resort to address the Golden Knights at 4:45 p.m. PDT. He then departed for the Henderson Executive Airport in Henderson, Nev., at 7:45 p.m., arriving at 8:30 p.m. for his private flight to Kalispell [Mont.].
Two commercial flights bound for Salt Lake City departed Las Vegas as Zinke was attending the hockey dinner. Travelers on those Delta Air Lines flights, leaving at 5:50 p.m. and 6:50 p.m., could have caught a connecting SkyWest Airlines flight that landed in Kalispell at 11:56 p.m., according to FlightStats.
Zinke's private chartered plane touched down in Kalispell at 1:30 a.m. MDT.
That . . . doesn't look good. It sure seems like Zinke may have been able to fly commercial had he not attended the NHL event for a team owned by a top campaign benefactor — assuming those flights had seats available. But Zinke spokeswoman Heather Swift said that was a false choice.
“Suggesting that by canceling meetings and events the Secretary could make a different flight is not a valid argument,” she told Colman. “That point could be made for every person who ever books flights. It's important for the secretary to be in the field talking with the American people and meeting with local and state officials, which was exactly what he was doing on both legs of that trip.”
That latter part is true, but meeting with “local and state officials” doesn't appear to be the reason Zinke couldn't fly commercial. Instead it looks like it's because he was attending an event that seems pretty, well, junket-y.
Compared to Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price's hundreds of thousands of dollars in private flights, $12,000 might not seem like much. But if this seemed like a good justification for a private trip, you wonder what else might be uncovered.