Why Trump is leaning towards Rep. Ryan Zinke for interior secretary

Rep. Zinke, who serves on House Natural Resources and Armed Services committees, advocates greater use of public lands for energy production such as oil and natural gas.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters
U.S. Representative Ryan Zinke (R-MT) arrives for a meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., December 12, 2016.

WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump has offered Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke the job of interior secretary, though it's unclear whether the congressman has accepted, two people with knowledge of the offer said Tuesday.

Zinke, 55, is a retired Navy SEAL who was awarded two Bronze Stars for combat missions in Iraq. He was an early supporter of Trump and met with the president-elect Monday at Trump Tower in Manhattan.

He just won re-election to a second term as Montana's only House member, and Republicans had mentioned him as a possible challenger to two-term Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2018.

Trump was also said to be considering Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers for the job. She wrote on Facebook Tuesday that it was an "honor" to be invited to meet with Trump.

The people with knowledge of the offer to Zinke insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the transition process publicly.

Zinke, who serves on House Natural Resources and Armed Services committees, describes himself as "a steadfast advocate for Montana veterans and military personnel and families." He advocates greater use of public lands for energy production such as oil and natural gas.

Zinke has prioritized development of oil, gas and other resources on public lands and has advocated for state control of energy development on federal lands, a stance that some environmental groups say threatens national parks. Zinke has voted against efforts to designate new national parks that would diversify the National Park System.

Zinke attracted attention in the 2014 campaign for calling Hillary Clinton "the antichrist."

"Do I really believe that she is the antichrist? That answer would be 'no,'" Zinke said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But I do get a little emotional about Benghazi, and I like the rest of America want answers."

In September 2012, when Clinton was secretary of state, the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in the eastern city of Benghazi when militants stormed a U.S. diplomatic post and, hours later, fired on a CIA compound nearby. Some Republicans argue the U.S. military held back assets that could have saved lives and believe President Barack Obama and Clinton lied to the public about the nature of the attack.

Before being elected to Congress, Zinke served in the Montana State Senate, where he chaired the Education Committee and focused on advancing technology in the classroom, rural access to education and local control over schools.

Zinke graduated from the University of Oregon, where he played football and earned a degree in geology. He has master's degrees in business finance and global leadership from the University of San Diego.

Interior manages the nation's public lands and minerals and is the steward of 20 percent of the nation's lands, including national parks, national wildlife refuges and other public lands. The department also supplies and manages water in the 17 Western states and upholds federal trust responsibilities to 566 federally recognized Indian tribes and Alaska Natives.

Zinke has raised doubts about climate change as "unsettled science." Yet he's also said in interviews that "something's going on" with the climate and promoted an energy strategy that includes renewable sources such as wind and solar would be prudent.

His home state boasts the largest coal reserves in the nation, although it trails far behind neighboring Wyoming in mining productivity. Zinke was one of many Western Republicans who criticized the Obama administration's imposition of a January moratorium on new coal sales from public lands.

During his re-election campaign, Democrats attempted to label Zinke as a radical conservative who would sell off federal lands to private interests or transfer them to state control. Zinke adamantly denied the charge, which was based on a pledge Democrats alleged he had signed in 2012 stating that Montana's lands were sovereign and not subject to federal control.

Zinke has said he doesn't remember signing the pledge.

He has instead cast himself as a protector of the public's right to access public lands and made a priority in Congress of trying to fix problems with the management of the nation's forests.

During his re-election campaign, he focused largely on national security issues and the need to more thoroughly vet refugees, arguing that terrorism was threatening the homeland and that his more than two decades as a SEAL gave him an advantage on the issue.

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