Last Friday night, Secretary Zinke was spotted in the Turkish Airlines lounge at Dulles International Airport, and later boarded a flight to Istanbul. According to a Politico source, Secretary Zinke is on personal travel, but the Department of Interior has refused to comment on his whereabouts. It is unknown if he has traveled to any other country at this time. The trip comes a year after Zinke and his wife took a security detail on their two-week vacation to Greece and Turkey. The cost of the taxpayer-funded security detail is still unknown and being withheld by Interior.
On August 1, 2018, President Trump put US sanctions on Turkey, and on August 4 Turkey’s President asked authorities to freeze the assets in Turkey of the U.S. ministers of “justice and interior.” While it was unclear if the Turkish President was referring specifically to Secretary Zinke, it is clear that both Ryan and Lola Zinke have connections to Turkish officials.
Secretary Zinke’s Turkish escape comes after he toured the extensive damage from the wildfires ravaging the Western United States, while blaming “radical environmentalists” for the ferocity of the fires, even going as far as calling groups “terrorists.” Although Secretary Zinke spouted a lot of hot rhetoric on wildfires he hasn’t joined in offering any solutions — last week, other government officials, including Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, announced their plan for reducing 80 million acres of hazardous fuels on forest service lands. It’s uncharacteristic for Zinke to miss any opportunity to grandstand on wildfires, and he has failed to suggest any action to address the situation.
The Howe Ridge Wildfire is raging through Zinke’s own backyard in Glacier National Park. It has caused evacuations and closures in the park, and at last count has exploded to cover 9,672 acres. The fire has also destroyed historic buildings along Lake MacDonald. Secretary Zinke has yet to visit the fire or to even make mention of this devastating fire that wreaking havoc on his home state.
The Interior Department also recently backpedaled on a controversial land sell-off proposal, in direct contrast to Secretary Zinke’s promise he would never sell or transfer public lands to private interests. Secretary Zinke inexplicably claimed he had never seen the proposal before it was released.
So, with all this happening at home, why would Ryan Zinke seemingly choose to go to Turkey, a country that his boss, Donald Trump, recently sanctioned? We’re not sure, but here are some interesting facts we dug up about Zinke’s ties to Turkey:
The May 2018 event was sponsored by Turkish Philanthropy Funds and Turkish Airlines. Ryan Zinke also attended the first Hollywood Turkish Film Festival in October 2017, which was also sponsored by Turkish Airlines.
When he was in Congress, in 2016, Zinke received a campaign contribution from Bijan Kian, a former associate Michael Flynn’s who is currently being investigated in the Mueller probe. When Zinke received the contribution, Kian was leading most of Flynn Intel Group’s lobbying for Inovo, the pro-Turkish government firm that Flynn later admitted to failing to register as a foreign agent.
Kian’s contribution to Zinke for Congress is only mentioned in the Flynn Intel Group Inc.’s Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) paperwork; there is no record of the contribution in any other campaign contributions database. Rafiekian also served with Zinke’s wife, Lola, on the Donald Trump transition team.
Lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs LLC has represented the Republic of Turkey. Mercury’s Co-Chair is former Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg, a Montana political player and a personal friend of Ryan Zinke’s. Not only did Rehberg attend Zinke’s July 4th bash last summer, but in September 2016 Rehberg gave Zinke $2,000 in campaign contributions — the same time his firm was lobbying for Turkey.
Another partner at Mercury, Michael McSherry, also donated to Zinke’s campaign in 2016. McSherry lobbied for the Turkish Institute for Progress, which was set up by Ekim Alptekin, the Turkish businessman who hired Flynn to lobby for Turkish interests shortly before the election.
Mercury is now representing the Turkey-U.S. Business Trade Council, a trade group that promotes business ties between the two countries. The council’s former chairman is also Ekim Alptekin.
The meeting took place on July 29, 2015. The president of LB International Solutions LLC, Lydia Borland, is on the TOA board that awarded Lola Zinke her “society” award in 2018.
At Lola Zinke’s behest, Sevil Altinsoy, a Corporate Agreements and Marketing Manager for Turkish Airlines, was invited to the Interior 4th of July Party in 2017 and also went boating with the Zinkes on their August 2017 romantic getaway.
A similar overseas trip by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt cost taxpayers an estimated $120,000.
With wildfires raging across the West, including in Zinke’s most cherished park, Glacier, the timing of this vacation seems odd to say the least. Add his close ties with Turkish officials, his ties to a lobbying firm who lobbies for Turkish interests, donations from a former Michael Flynn associate who is under investigation, recent sanctions imposed by President Trump, and the order by the Turkish President to freeze Zinke’s potential foreign assets, one can only imagine why Zinke decided to skip town so quickly and quietly.