NEW YORK (AP) – Edging closer to completing his Cabinet, President-elect Donald Trump announced his choice of Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke as Interior Secretary Thursday, picking a man who should fit smoothly into an administration favoring more energy drilling and less regulation.
In the evening, he was to embark on his latest campaign victory lap, this time to Pennsylvania, which he wrested from decades in the Democratic column. He also found time to hit Twitter, playing media critic and then stating anew his doubts about charges that Russia hackers tried to disrupt the U.S. election.
Trump praised Zinke, a former Navy SEAL, as having “built one of the strongest track records on championing regulatory relief, forest management, responsible energy development and public land issues.” Zinke, 55, was an early supporter of the president-elect and publicly expressed his interest in a Cabinet post when Trump visited Montana in May.
As with several other Cabinet selections, Zinke has advocated increased drilling and mining on public lands and has expressed skepticism about the urgency of climate change. He attracted attention in the 2014 campaign for calling Hillary Clinton “the Antichrist.” House Speaker Paul Ryan praised the pick, saying Zinke “has been an ardent supporter of all-of-the-above energy policies and responsible land management.”
But his nomination could have a ripple effect on control of the Senate, since Zinke now may forgo what was once a near-certain challenge to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2018.
One of Zinke’s backers was Land Tawney, head of sportsmen’s group Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, and a friend of Donald Trump Jr. Tawney also has ties to Tester and volunteered for a pro-Tester super PAC a few years ago. But in an interview, Tawney denied a Politico report that his support for Zinke had anything to do with sidelining him from the Senate race.
“I think there are some folks who don’t like the pick of Zinke for that position, and that they’re trying to politicize this to change that, and I think that’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Tawney. He said a focus on preserving public lands led him to oppose other potential nominees, including Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers.
Trump has two Cabinet selections yet to make though he also needs to fill out much of his White House staff. After a day of meetings at Trump Tower, which includes immigration hardliner Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and some members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Trump was to travel to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a rally.
Pennsylvania had not gone for a Republican candidate since 1988. But the Trump campaign staff long thought that the state, rich in white working-class voters, would be receptive to his populist message and not be part of Clinton’s hoped-for firewall.
Trump repeatedly campaigned there and won the state by less than 1 percentage point, giving him a vital 20 electoral college votes.
The president-elect was busy on Twitter Thursday morning.
He again cast doubt on U.S. intelligence assertions about Russia election hacking, writing “If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?”
That assertion is untrue. A month before the election, the Obama administration bluntly accused Russia of hacking American political sites and email accounts to interfere.
Trump has repeatedly said he’d like to improve ties with Russia, a hope that has been echoed in Moscow. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday lauded Trump’s Cabinet selections as people with no “anti-Russian stereotypes.”
Medvedev said in a televised interview that Moscow is glad Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson has been chosen as secretary of state, describing him as someone with “pragmatic thinking.”
The Kremlin has cheered Trump’s victory although some Russian officials have recently said they are not expecting relations between Russia and the U.S., which were battered after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, to improve overnight.
Trump also tweeted, “The media tries so hard to make my move to the White House, as it pertains to my business, so complex – when actually it isn’t!” His declaration came on the day he was supposed to hold a news conference, now postponed ’til January, to reveal how he plans to distance himself from his business. Aides said more time was needed to finalize the complicated arrangement.
AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner in Washington contributed to this report..