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Meet the Two Protesters Who Confronted Interior Sec. Ryan Zinke over Corruption & Climate Change

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We go to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to speak with Sallie Holmes and Jesse Brucato, who interrupted a speech by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Friday. Zinke has faced 14 federal misconduct investigations since joining President Trump’s Cabinet. The protesters asked Zinke about his alleged ethical lapses and questioned why he refuses to acknowledge the role of climate change in the wildfires raging across the western United States. We are also joined by Politico reporter Ben Lefebvre, who broke the stories linking Zinke to a real estate deal with energy giant Halliburton’s chairperson David Lesar.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Colorado, where Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was confronted Friday while he spoke in rural Steamboat Springs at the Freedom Conference, which has featured conservative thought leaders like former Vice President Dick Cheney and Fox News host Laura Ingraham. Just as Zinke began his address, Jesse Brucato stood up and raised a sign that read “Corruption Cream Ale.” He asked Zinke a series of questions before fellow diners grabbed him from behind and removed him from the room.

INTERIOR SECRETARY RYAN ZINKE: I’m asked about the time, you know, “What’s easier? Being a former SEAL Team 6 commander or Department of Interior secretary? Actually, SEAL was a better job and easier. I remember, as a SEAL, when people shot at you, I could shoot back. Interior—I’m honored to be in the president’s Cabinet. But I can tell you, with this president, you never sit. But Interior is a—it’s 12 time zones. We stretch from the Virgin Islands all the way to Palau.

JESSE BRUCATO: Hey, Secretary Zinke! Why do you care more about breweries, your own personal brewery, than our public lands?


JESSE BRUCATO: Don’t touch me!


JESSE BRUCATO: About our public lands.


JESSE BRUCATO: It’s rude that you care more about—


JESSE BRUCATO: —fossil fuel buddies than our public lands!


FREEDOM CONFERENCE ATTENDEE 2: Everybody has the right to talk. Shut the [bleep] up and go away.

JESSE BRUCATO: Yeah. Let’s go. Take me out. I’m not fighting. I’m not fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: After Jesse Brucato was taken out by fellow diners, Zinke continued his speech focused on the management of public lands, but it was not long before Zinke was interrupted again, this time by Sallie Holmes, who had more questions for the interior secretary.

SALLIE HOLMES: Secretary Zinke, why won’t you acknowledge that climate change is causing and accelerating wildfires, even in Routt County?



INTERIOR SECRETARY RYAN ZINKE: You know what? You haven’t served, and you don’t understand what energy is. I’d like to see—I’d like to see your—

SALLIE HOLMES: Why are you cutting the DOI budget for wildfires?

INTERIOR SECRETARY RYAN ZINKE: —your child have to fight for energy.

SALLIE HOLMES: Our communities are suffering because you will not acknowledge climate change!

AMY GOODMAN: This is how Secretary Zinke responded to Sallie Holmes after she asked why he won’t acknowledge climate change is causing and accelerating wildfires.

INTERIOR SECRETARY RYAN ZINKE: You know what? You haven’t served, and you don’t understand what energy is. I’d like to see—I’d like to see your—your child have to fight for energy.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary Zinke served 23 years as a Navy SEAL and represented Montana as a congressmember, but since he became interior secretary, Zinke has emerged as one of the most ethically challenged members of President Trump’s Cabinet. Compared to disgraced former EPA Director Scott Pruitt, who faced a record 16 federal investigations into alleged misconduct before he was forced to resign, Zinke has faced 14 federal investigations into his behavior as secretary.

We’ll talk more about the latest allegations he faces soon, but first we go directly to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where we’re joined by the two people you just heard interrupting Zinke. That’s Sallie Holmes and Jesse Brucato, both residents of Steamboat Springs, who describe themselves as “concerned citizens.” Holmes a graduate of Colorado Mountain College with a degree in sustainability studies, Jesse Brucato an avid rafting enthusiast.

Welcome, both of you, to Democracy Now! Sallie, let’s begin with you. Talk about your message, how you got into this event, what the event was, and your assessment of Zinke’s response.

SALLIE HOLMES: I got into the event by buying a ticket. Both Jesse and I decided that we needed to be a little more assertive. If you’re going to come to Steamboat and only speak to wealthy donors and wealthy citizens, then we decided that we needed a seat at the table, as well.

His response to me was incredibly angry and intense. I think I really threw him off guard. He didn’t stay on my topic, obviously. He was talking about energy at the time. But he immediately went to that I haven’t served in the military, I don’t know anything about energy, and my child is going to have to fight for a war. And the reason we were there is to ask a question. You know, you can’t be a responsible land manager unless you acknowledge the issues at hand, which include climate change and listening to your stakeholders.

AMY GOODMAN: Your own county has been fighting wildfires, Sallie?

SALLIE HOLMES: Yes, we have a fire burning to the east of Steamboat that’s only about 5 percent contained right now, and the smoke has been billowing into the valley for the past couple weeks, definitely diminishing air quality. And we already have a Stage 1 fire ban here, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Jesse Brucato, talk about your concerns, what you raised with him. Explain the sign you were holding.

JESSE BRUCATO: So, the sign I held up said “Corruption Cream Ale” on it. And basically the message that I wanted to get out with that is that Zinke is clearly a corrupt politician, using private meetings with Halliburton to get something he’s always wanted—a brewery—instead of focusing on protecting our public lands, which is something, you know, I deeply care about. I didn’t really think that you should be subject to personal gains, you know, through just having a position of power in office.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to bring Ben Lefebvre into this conversation, who’s been doing a series of exposés in Politico around the interior secretary and on this issue of a brewery in Whitefish, Montana, his hometown. Can you explain what it is that Jesse was so concerned about? Explain what this brewery is, what the connection is to Halliburton and what it has to do with the issue of public lands, Ben.

BEN LEFEBVRE: Yeah, a group of developers in Whitefish, Montana, including the Halliburton chairman and, until recently, the CEO, Dave Lesar, are bankrolling a proposed development that would include a microbrewery that is—the development would be adjacent to a park that the Zinkes own, Ryan Zinke and his family, run through a foundation they set up about a decade ago. The worries are that through a land deal that the foundation is offering with the developers, including Lesar, the Zinkes may have a chance at operating a microbrewery that’s planned for the development.

They had a meeting—Dave Lesar and Ryan Zinke—in the Interior Department’s headquarters, in Zinke’s office, where they discussed the development. Zinke would say that they spent 90 minutes talking about the Interior’s history. But then, after the meeting at the headquarters, they went out to dinner. Zinke took him for a private tour of the Lincoln Memorial. So it really raises questions of conflict of interest.

AMY GOODMAN: And this land that the foundation got—the foundation was set up to serve veterans? Is that right?

BEN LEFEBVRE: Yeah, the land was given to the Zinkes through the BNSF railroad about a decade ago. The land was supposed to be used to build a park to honor veterans. The Zinkes have said they would look into doing educational programs for kids with this foundation. But having visited there twice, there’s nothing really there. It’s just, you know, a bunch of weeds and grass. There’s a rail line, like one of the major rail lines, going right adjacent to the park. About 40 trains a day go by. The Zinkes have said they’d do a bandshell there for summer concerts. Neighbors have said that’s not a great idea, when you’ve got, you know, 40 rumbling trains per day going through. So, there’s a question of what their plans are for this land. There’s a retention pond there that eats up most of the available space. I think the latest I’ve heard is Secretary Zinke’s wife saying it’s a great dog run. But it’s a vacant lot. Any vacant lot, I would imagine, would be a great dog run.

AMY GOODMAN: And the business Halliburton has before the secretary of interior or the Interior Department?

BEN LEFEBVRE: You know, Halliburton is one of the biggest frackers in the world. Anything they do on public land is going to be regulated by Interior. So we’ve seen, for instance, Interior trying to roll back—or they actually have rolled back the fracking rule that the Obama administration put in place. That would save service companies like Halliburton quite a bit of money. The Interior is still trying to roll back a rule that would—the Obama administration put in place, that would have cut down the methane emissions from pipelines and oil rigs on public lands. And the Interior Department is also now considering rolling back, or in the process of rolling back, safety rules for offshore drilling rigs, which, again, would be another thing that service companies such as Halliburton would, you know, save money from, not having to adhere to stricter regulations.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, this brewery that the Zinkes own is in—their business partner is the CEO of Halliburton?

BEN LEFEBVRE: Right. They don’t own the brewery yet. I mean, they don’t—the brewery has been proposed for the land. And Zinke has been trying to get a brewery off the ground since 2012. He first proposed it then, along with a bed and breakfast for the town. But he’s been pursuing it pretty much nonstop since then. Even as a U.S. congressman in Montana a few years ago, he was sitting on a planning board committee with the Whitefish City Council and attending meetings to talk about his microbrewery idea. Those plans got shot down because residents, you know, kind of protested, saying, “This is not something we want in our residential neighborhood.”

But with this planned microbrewery that is—you know, when you look at the development maps, it’s marked off as a microbrewery. This raises questions of: Is the Halliburton chairman bankrolling a project that the Zinkes would then be in charge of, for—you know, who knows what Halliburton gets out of this? But, you know, if you’re the head of the Interior Department, you have things to offer, so it does raise at least the appearance of conflict of interest.

AMY GOODMAN: Sallie Holmes, can you respond to what Interior Secretary Zinke said about fighting wars for oil?

SALLIE HOLMES: I think that he just basically removed the smokescreen about fighting wars for democracy and freedom, and admitted that they are for oil. And I think that it’s extremely irresponsible for him to not only say that, but for him to admit that they’re not looking at any type of alternatives. There are other ways—renewable energy, obviously—but we don’t need to be sending more Americans, more of our family members and friends, across the world to fight for energy, when we have the scientific technology to change that here.

AMY GOODMAN: As more than a hundred fires rage in the western United States, a number of them in Colorado, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke wrote an op-ed last week in USA Today about forest management on public lands, saying, quote, “Radical environmentalists would have you believe forest management means clear cutting forests and national parks. But their rhetoric could not be further from the truth. They make outdated and unscientific arguments, void of facts, because they cannot defend the merits of their policy preferences year after year as our forests and homes burn to the ground,” Zinke wrote. His op-ed came out after confusion about President Trump’s claim in a tweet that California’s water, which could be used for firefighting, was instead being diverted into the Pacific Ocean, which experts criticized completely and debunked. Your response, Sallie?

SALLIE HOLMES: I think that regardless of what he thinks about environmentalists or the left or anything like that, this is a political spectrum-spanning issue. The majority of Americans care about our public lands, and I think that we really only want a seat at the table. And a responsible land manager is not going to make the enemy out of anybody and is going to listen to, A, the scientific community and, B, the citizens, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And who took you out, Sallie Holmes? Was it the diners you were around, or was it security? Who forced you out?

SALLIE HOLMES: It was actually an attendee who got up from his seat and came over and grabbed me around the neck and brought me back to the door to the exit, where I was met by security.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you call yourself a protester, Jesse Brucato?

JESSE BRUCATO: I wouldn’t say I am particularly a political activist. But when I heard Zinke was coming through town, I figured somebody had to do something. And, you know, it was a good opportunity to kind of put my money where my mouth is and stand up for what I believe in.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Sallie Holmes and Jesse Brucato. They both engaged in this first-time direct action, standing up at a dinner for Interior Secretary Zinke in Steamboat Springs. Ben Lefebvre, I’d like to ask you to stay with us. After break, we’ll also be joined by a former Interior Department employee, for years, who ultimately left under the Trump administration. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Lyla June, Diné activist and performer, singing at the Stand for Our Land rally in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, last Friday. The local papers, from the Steamboat Pilot to The Aspen Times, estimated around 1,400 people came to this, as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was speaking at a $1,000-per-person gathering at Steamboat Springs ski resort.

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