And the Horse He Rode In On: What Does the Future Hold for Ryan Zinke?

I come to bury Zinke, not to praise him.

While today brought the long-overdue news that Zinke was being forced out of the Trump Administration for his pattern of ethical violations, using his official position to enrich himself and undermining the credibility of the Administration before the mid-terms, it’s almost certain that Secretary Zinke doesn’t intend this to be his last political act.

Zinke, who honestly believed (and probably still does) that he could be elected President, suggested himself as the best candidate for Speaker of the House before he had finished one term in the House, and who, when the writing on the wall became clear that he was out at Interior, floated his name as the UN ambassador, almost surely imagines he will be elected to another office.

The next few months will be fascinating. Just as it seemed–and was–certain that Zinke would wilt under the pressure of the D.C. press corps, it seems certain that the next few months will reveal a great deal about Zinke’s character. The Trump phenomenon has created truly dangerous times for Republicans: while Trump’s ascension to the head of the Party gave grifters and conmen like Zinke the opportunity to come to power, Trump’s impending doom puts them in incredible peril. As the scandals, investigations, and incarcerations around Trump grow in number will Zinke turn on the President to save himself or will he remain a loyal follower to avoid angering the Trump mob that dominates Republican primaries?

That choice over the next few months will likely have more impact on Secretary Zinke’s future plans than anything, and given that Ryan Zinke’s first–and often only concern–seems to be Ryan Zinke, it’s hard to guess what comes next. My best bet? He’ll wait until Trump is mortally wounded as a candidate and President and try to slip in one last dagger to show what a truly independent thinker he is.

So Where Does Zinke End Up? A Betting Guide

A run for Montana governor in 2020: 5-1 odds

Until his washout at Interior, this has always been my guess for Zinke’s next step. A retreat to Montana would offer some significant benefits: a press that proved itself far from critical during his tenure in the House, the opportunity to look heroic in front of the Capitol building and maybe even ride a horse to work, no messy votes on legislation that will interfere with higher aspirations. While I still think it’s possible Zinke will make this run, a loss to Tim Fox in the Republican primary would end his aspirations and his assault on public lands won’t play well here, so a Zinke run is far from certain.

A run for the Montana Senate in 2020: 100-1 odds

While we can’t overlook the possibility that Zinke would think about a Senate bid, it has all of the drawbacks of a big for governor with even less chance of success. Some self-aggrandizing fool like Troy Downing might run against Daines here for insufficiently supporting the Dear Leader, but just this one time, Ryan Zinke won’t be that self-aggrandizing fool.

The proprietor of a brewpub, the first wholly-owned subsidiary of Haliburton to primarily sell beer: 10-1 odds

Under normal circumstances, it would be unseemly for a government official who was forced out of office largely because of a conflict of interest scandal to turn around and take a deal from the corporation involved in the scandal, but this is Ryan Zinke we’re talking about. While much of what he has said to the people of Montana over the past few years has been dishonest, one thing has always rung true: Zinke, who is well-known in Whitefish and Washington for his love of the drink, really does want to run some kind of brewery or brewpub operation. Maybe Lola will finally let him have his dream.

A Fox News Talking Head/Analyst: 3-2 odds

By far the most likely outcome in the short-term. While Zinke’s not terribly coherent when he’s talking, he is excellent at sticking to talking points and ignoring science and fact. It’s easy to see “Commander Z” parachuting into a regular gig at Fox News to opine on public lands as a “geologist,” tax policy as a “small business owner,” and military issues as, uh…someone who never rose to Captain in the Navy because he committed fraud while serving. He’s the perfect fit: a blend of self-assurance and allergy to truth that will play very well between 6-10 p.m. on Fox.

No matter which of these paths Zinke follows, I can only hope that the Montana press remembers both his ambition and his scandals. Whether he runs for office in 2020 or 2024, let’s hope that the watchdogs here in Montana keep an eye on Zinke. The work the D.C. press corps has done to expose his self-dealing and disregard for the rules offer a model for future coverage.

If you appreciate an independent voice holding Montana politicians accountable and informing voters, and you can throw a few dollars a month our way, we would certainly appreciate it.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.


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  • I don’t think there’s any doubt that Zinke will try again for public office. The opportunities for graft and corruption are just too tempting, and hard to match in the private sector. Unfortunately for him, it hasn’t sunk in that he’s just not very good at it. He keeps getting caught. Brazen effrontery and arrogance only stretch so far, and Zinke will never achieve the status he thinks he should have. He’s just a petty grifter; always has been, always will be.

  • I’ll vote for lobbyist. He already knows all the crooks involved in the energy industry, and it’s an easy job. No thinking necessary. Just repeat talking points and pretend to be an expert. Kinda what he does now. But as slow as even he is, I think he knows he dodged a bullet on this one. So I doubt he’ll want to get back into politics any time soon. His pal Livingston has a think tank. Maybe Zinke could lobby for them.

  • I believe Zinke will run against Fox for governor in the GOP 2020 primary. I also believe he will win as he is so loyal to Trump and the far right Montana GOP won’t care what he did wrong at Interior as to them it’s fake news. I doubt will be much support for loser Rosendahl to run. Fox is not true Trump guy and the wacko far right GOP is in driver seat here in Montana. Trump will unfortunately still be very popular in Montana in 2020 no matter what “witch hunt” report comes up with. I hate to say this but at this point I don’t see any democrat beating him if he runs as Zinke is still very popular with GOP base here. I knew Zinke has done a terrible job at Interior but it appeases the guy that really has been pulling the strings there David Bernhardt will replace him is much worse. Now with the GOP Senate having 53 seats it will be even easier to confirm him.

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