Bye-Bye, Scott
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Bye-Bye, Scott

The EPA Chief Is Out Over Ethics Issues, Not Policy, But We’ll Take What We Can Get


Months too late, Scott Pruitt finally is out as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency amid a smoldering pit of scandal, but of course, ahead, Trump needs to name a new administrator and get majority approval in the Senate for an endorsement of his policies.

With more than a dozen active scandal investigations ranging from using government money to rent and feather his own nest to demanding that his staff lean on allies to find a six-figure job for his wife, Pruitt himself obviously made himself too much a pest to the president’s psyche to be able to continue.

Pruitt’s record even had drawn criticism from commentators on Fox News, the president’s preferred gauge of public reaction.

But what has kept him in the job – and what has troubled the rest of us about Pruitt’s personal peccadilloes and abuses, has been how he approached the actual job. As the administrator, Pruitt turned the agency on its head, eliminating piles of regulations, throwing Science and scientists out the window, overturning the importance of Climate Change and endangering clean air and water.

Indeed, Pruitt, 50, saw the job as a tool for job creation, a growth economy and deal-making with the exact people and industries whose pollution he was supposed to be regulating. In his goodbye, Pruitt painted himself as a victim of public harassment.

All of which brings us to Square One. Trump needs the Senate to consent to his next administrator nominee. The immediate move was to put the departmental deputy, Andrew Wheeler, 53, in charge. Wheeler is a lawyer and former lobbyist for the coal industry – an industry whose practices that, again, the EPA is supposed to regulate.

Naturally, the news came by tweet while Trump was in the air en route to a campaign event in Montana. Trump: “Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this.”

The degree to which Pruitt pursued behavior that others perceived as ethical violations has been unusually large. Lawmakers from both parties, environmental groups and government watchdogs raised questions about his spending, housing arrangements, security team and raises for political appointees. In all, Pruitt left EPA having faced 13 inquiries or reviews into his practices at the agency, including his first-class plane travel, a room that he rented from a lobbyist at $50 per night, creation of an over-sized security force for himself, the installation of a soundproof booth in his office costing $40,000 and sending a staffer to buy a used mattress from the Trump hotel for his personal use.

Just this week, there was a bit of brouhaha over whether Pruitt had gone to Trump to press the president to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replace him with Pruitt. Just yesterday, there were new reports that last summer, a senior scheduler, Madeline G. Morris, was fired by Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff, Kevin Chmielewski, who said he let her go because she was questioning the practice of retroactively deleting meetings from the calendar.

The trouble, however, is that the main ethics problem Pruitt has raised is none of these. Instead, it has been in using the machinery of the EPA to undo everything for which the EPA has stood. If the Republicans in the Senate cannot understand that the administrator of the EPA is not supposed to ignore science and is supposed to care about keeping air and water clean for consumer use, we have a much bigger problem.

The main issue with Pruitt has been using the machinery of the EPA to undo everything for which the EPA has stood.

The only good news here is that the Senate, which is eating itself up over how to explain endorsing a pending Supreme Court justice who will seriously change the direction of the court, will have to find time to hold hearings on a new environmental chief as well.

If the choice is Wheeler, the deputy, the Senate would be considering someone who shares Pruitt’s plans to overturn environmental regulations but who prefers to remain in the background. The New York Times noted Wheeler could ultimately prove to be more effective than Pruitt in implementing Trump’s deregulatory agenda.

Pruitt had been the attorney general of Oklahoma. In that role, he had sued the EPA multiple times to counter the actions of the federal agency as government overreach.

Pruitt has been seen as among the most polarizing figures in the Trump administration, detested by the left for his aggressive environmental deregulatory agenda and embraced on the right. In 17 months, he has taken dozens of actions to roll back or change major Obama administration and other policies including the Clean Power Plan, Clean Water Rule and methane standards for oil and natural gas drillers. He had been seen as being in good favor with Trump.

Pruitt announced he would seek to ease greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars set by the Obama administration, endorsing the auto industry’s argument that they are unattainable because consumers are buying bigger cars. He also rolled out a controversial science “transparency” initiative, proposing to restrict the agency from using scientific findings whose methodology and data are not sufficiently public or reproducible.

I’d welcome a set of Senate hearings on a successor to talk about the real ethical issues here.

July 6, 2018