Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke defended himself at a Senate hearing Tuesday morning over reports about his use of private charter flights, calling them “insults” and “innuendos” that are “misleading.”
He told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that he has taken three such flights, but did not include in his tally his use of government helicopters or government planes.
“I resent the fact that of your insults,” he told Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the panel, after she asked if Zinke considered his private charter travel “a mistake.” “I resent the fact they’re misleading.”
Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden told Zinke that his vote to confirm him last year was “one of the biggest regrets of my time in public service.” Wyden’s comment right after he accused Zinke of a”shell game to pay for a helicopter ride” during, but unrelated to raging wildfires.
Later, under more sympathetic questioning from Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, Zinke, who is a former Navy SEAL, said he is tough and can handle the criticism.
“I’ve been shot at before. I’m very comfortable with it,” Zinke said.
“Do right. Fear no man. Do the best you can,” he continued, partially quoting what the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs says is a Scottish proverb. “Wake up and make sure we’re accountable. Everything I do is looked at through a whole legal team, office of ethics.”
Zinke’s travel, and his flight on a charter plane from Nevada (where he also spoke to the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team owned by a former donor to his political campaign) sparked ongoing reviews by the Inspector General and Office of Special Counsel last year. Among other examples, a CNN review of documents in February found several examples that ethics watchdogs say raise questions about whether Zinke is misusing his travel privileges, despite receiving approval from the department’s lawyer and ethics officer.
Zinke last year called the controversy over his travel habits “a little B.S.”
CNN’s Cristina Alesci and Rene Marsh contributed to this report.