Zinke and Former Trump Administration Officials Hone in on Federal Overreach, Immigration, Fentanyl at Whitefish Event

During a forum hosted by a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, panelists decried the Biden administration’s policies while accentuating a number of conservative talking points

By Denali Sagner
U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke hosts a forum with former Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and former Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker in Whitefish on Aug. 2, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“In God we trust, right? Government, we don’t trust,” U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke said on Wednesday evening, addressing a crowd that had gathered to hear the Congressmen deliver remarks on immigration policy, fentanyl and federal politics.

“When the power gets consolidated in too few hands and there’s no recourse, that’s a tyrant.”

Over the course of 90 minutes, Zinke, joined by former acting U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and former acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker, honed in on a number of talking points that have defined conservative politics in the post-Trump era, charging the federal government with incompetence and bloating, evoking a “culture war” instigated by the American left, denouncing investigations into former President Donald Trump, and highlighting what they described as unchecked immigration at the Southern Border and an explosion of fentanyl on American streets.

The forum was hosted by the America First Policy Institute (AFPI), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank founded in 2021 by former Trump administration officials. Wolf is the executive director of AFPI and Whitaker as the co-chair of AFPI’s Center for Law and Justice.

Wolf served as a lobbyist for a number of years before joining the Trump administration in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and later the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Wolf resigned as acting secretary of homeland security in early 2021 after a number of courts ruled his appointment unconstitutional.

Whitaker served as acting U.S. Attorney General following the resignation of Jeff Sessions in November 2018, and directly supervised Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election. Throughout his tenure as attorney general, Whitaker criticized Mueller’s investigation and maintained that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Addressing an audience of roughly 50 people, Wolf described AFPI as working to expand on the “successful policies under the Trump administration” while emphasizing the values of “faith, freedom, security and prosperity.”

Former Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf attends a forum hosted by U.S Rep. Ryan Zinke in Whitefish on Aug. 2, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Wolf posed wide-ranging questions to Zinke and Whitaker during the forum, focusing at the outset on policy failures of the Biden administration and what Wolf described as a “two-tiered system of justice” that targets conservatives, and namely Trump.

Whitaker described the stacking indictments against Trump as an unmerited use of the justice system by Democrats in Washington, D.C. while also appraising “unprecedented” investigations into Hunter Biden as overly lenient.

“These are anecdotal examples of the two-tiered system of justice, but we don’t have enough time tonight to go through all of the examples,” Whitaker said.

“There wasn’t a collusion. Believe me,” Zinke said about charges of collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia. “We couldn’t even coordinate among ourselves. There wasn’t even a chance we could coordinate with Russia.”

After serving as a U.S. Navy Seal, Zinke served in the Montana Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives before being appointed by Trump to serve as Secretary of the Interior in 2017. Zinke resigned from the position in late 2018 amid a flurry of ethics investigations.

Zinke also criticized policies that allow service members to receive gender-affirming care under military health insurance plans.

“We didn’t start the culture war. Your taxpayers, they didn’t pay for it either,” Zinke said. “We’re not going to have DOD have sex change operations and hormone therapy.”

House Republicans last month passed a contentious defense authorization bill along near party lines that denies coverage for transgender-related healthcare procedures; eliminates the Pentagon’s offices of diversity, equity and inclusion; and bars the military from reimbursing travel expenses related to abortion care for service members. The bill broke a decades-long precedent of passing the annual defense spending package with bipartisan support.

U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke salutes the flag during a reading of “The Pledge of Alliance” ahead of a forum with former Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and former Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker in Whitefish on Aug. 2, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Turning to immigration, the three panelists described a porous southern border and a presidential administration unable, and unwilling, to crack down on undocumented immigration.

When asked by Wolf if the border crisis is an intentional creation of the Biden administration, Zinke said, “It has to be.”

Zinke expressed support for building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, and told audience members that there is sex trafficking, child trafficking and drug trafficking happening in Whitefish, fueled by migrants coming across the southern border. 

“Not everyone comes here to work. A lot of people come here to destroy,” he said. 

“What the left and what a lot of people want you to believe, depending on where you get your news from, is that everyone crossing that border is a child or a mother just looking for a better life. And that’s simply not the case,” Wolf said.

Wolf encouraged attendees to watch the movie “Sound of Freedom,” a box-office hit that depicts Tim Ballard, a former federal agent who embarks on a mission to save trafficked children in South America. The movie has piqued the interest of conservatives in recent weeks, gaining public admiration from U.S. Sens. Tim Scott and Ted Cruz, as well as Trump. Critics have expressed concern that the movie has fueled a baseless QAnon conspiracy theory that an international cabal of elites is abusing and murdering children to extract a substance called adrenochrome from them.

In addition to immigration, the panelists described the dramatic influx of fentanyl in American communities, a phenomenon they attributed to the Biden administration’s weak policy at the border and on China. 

Deaths involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl rose from 58,000 in 2020 to 71,100 in 2021, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Former Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker attends a forum hosted by U.S. Rep Ryan Zinke in Whitefish on Aug. 2, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Whitaker said that China is attempting to “weaken the United States” by “killing our citizens” with fentanyl.

The U.S. Attorney General’s office in June charged four chemical companies based in China and eight Chinese nationals with trafficking chemicals used by Mexican drug cartels to manufacture large sums of fentanyl, which is later sold in the U.S.

“China is not our friend,” Zinke said, criticizing the closeness between the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese enterprise and China’s contributions to environmental pollution.

Questions from the audience reflected the panelists’ rhetoric on federal politics, immigration and foreign policy.

“China and people crossing the border are infiltrating our society and our culture,” one attendee said, calling a new Illinois law that allows permanent residents and D.A.C.A recipients to become police officers “just the beginning of a larger infiltration into our society.”

AFPI hosted a second panel with Zinke and Tim Sheehy, former Navy SEAL and CEO of Bridger Aerospace, in Bozeman on Thursday. Zinke last month endorsed Sheehy in his run for U.S. Senate, effectively quashing percolating rumors that Zinke himself would attempt to unseat Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. `

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