It speaks volumes about the culture of the Trump administration that it took this long.
When Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt resigned on Thursday, he finally put an end to a long-running distraction for both his agency and the president. Pruitt’s high-handed personal conduct and actions that, at the very least, appeared corrupt would have doomed any cabinet secretary in any era. Yet in the current hyper-partisan atmosphere in the country, Pruitt was a gift that kept on giving to Democrats and a mainstream media eager to seize on any weakness in the administration. In a different White House, someone like Pruitt would have been sacrificed the moment it was clear he was vulnerable to attacks on his ethics.
But the reason Pruitt was able to hang on so long wasn’t solely a function of his obtuseness or Trump’s characteristically stubborn refusal to do whatever it is that conventional wisdom tells him he must. Pruitt’s successful efforts to overturn a host of Obama-era EPA regulations both endeared him to Trump and put a bullseye on his back. Now that he’s gone, the debate about the EPA will no longer be about Pruitt’s astonishingly poor judgment. It will return to whether or not the United States cares more about environmentalist computer models or boosting the economy.
For many months, Pruitt’s defenders, both in the White House and among conservatives, claimed that his problems were nothing but a smear campaign aimed at someone doing exactly what Trump and most Republicans wanted him to do. While they were right about the motivations of the EPA administrator’s critics, they were wrong to underestimate the depth of Pruitt’s problems.
From the moment he took office, Pruitt seemed intent on running the EPA as if it were his private fiefdom. He gave the aides he brought with him from Oklahoma massive raises that had to be reversed. He hired a friend whose bank had both given him mortgages and financed another business to run the EPA Superfund. Pruitt dumped the head of his enhanced security detail who had refused to let him travel with lights and sirens as if he were the president. He used a $50-a-night condo lease obtained from a lobbyist who did business with his agency. He employed his staff on personal matters.
And no matter what else he did, it’s doubtful that Pruitt would ever have lived down the installation, in his office, of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth that seemed like a prop in a comedy series.
Once the media put him under a microscope, the questionable dealings seemed to metastasize. While he might not have been guilty of wrongdoing in every case, the sheer volume of potential problems made it clear that Pruitt was out of his depth.
Pruitt was a political liability almost from the start of his tenure, not least because his ties with industry and his lack of discretion made it appear that his decisions were a payoff to donors.
To this, Pruitt’s defenders replied that he was no worse than many other cabinet secretaries in the past. But what they forget is that while Donald Trump may be able to flout the rules that have always applied to Washington political life, the same doesn’t necessarily apply to his subordinates. The steady drip, drip, drip of Pruitt’s ethical hijinks provided Democrats with an unending source of ammunition to use against him and Trump. It may not be fair that Republicans are judged by different rules than Democrats, but anyone who doesn’t understand this and act accordingly isn’t smart enough to hold a cabinet post.
Instead of rationalizing Pruitt’s problems, administration supporters should have realized that in this atmosphere, Trump’s cabinet secretaries needed to be as pure as Caesar’s wife. Living by the standard rules of the Washington swamp that the president had promised to drain was unacceptable. Pruitt was a political liability almost from the start of his tenure, not least because his ties with industry and his lack of discretion made it appear that his decisions were a payoff to donors and friends rather than being integral to Trump’s economic agenda regardless of who was running the EPA. While the job of the EPA is to manage the environment, not the economy, its ability to hinder development and growth was made clear by the Obama administration. Pruitt was tasked with the necessary job of creating a proper balance between environmental concerns and the financial health of the nation, not to continue Obama’s reckless course.
A stronger White House chief of staff than John Kelly would have eliminated Pruitt the moment it was clear he didn’t understand the need to keep his nose clean. However, President Trump resisted the obvious imperative to fire Pruitt because he hates doing his critics’ bidding.
But the main reason Pruitt was able to survive so long was that his supporters believed that the job he was doing in rolling back Obama’s massive regulatory binge was necessary to reviving the economy. They were right about that but wrong to think that he was the only person who could do it. His replacement, Andrew Wheeler, seems more than capable of implementing the same policies but has exactly the kind of administrative experience, in running Washington bureaucracies and navigating the politics of Capitol Hill, that Pruitt lacked.
Now that the inevitable has occurred, Pruitt’s ethical fumbles will be forgotten. But, as an avalanche of critical stories about the EPA that were published as soon as he was gone showed, few in the media really cared that much about the phone booth or the corruption he seems to have practiced.
As the New York Times helpfully pointed out, he had either overturned or was in the process of rolling back 76 different Obama-era environmental rules that had handicapped industry and the economy. In particular, he relieved some of the burdens that had been placed on the automotive industry and those that President Obama had clearly intended as part of a slow death sentence for fossil fuels.
In response, the critics claimed he was denying science and inflicting grave harm on the environment. One study quoted by the New York Times went so far as to assert that Pruitt would be personally responsible for an extra 80,000 deaths per decade due to respiratory problems, though that charge seems to be more a product of typical environmentalist alarmism designed to scare the public than the sort of fact-based science that environmentalists supposedly revere. The authors of the study also ignored the impact of safety, especially as their regulations incentivized the manufacture of smaller, less sturdy cars.
Andrew Wheeler can now continue this work without being handicapped by Pruitt’s misjudgments.
In fact, Pruitt had not stripped the environment of the protections that have helped to clean up America’s air and water over recent decades. All he had done was to pair back the Obama-era regulations that were rooted in a Democratic political agenda and that did little to turn back the oceans, as the 44th president had once boasted he would do.
Pruitt’s EPA played a major role in the economic boom of the last year. As the New York Times noted back in January, while the tax cuts enacted by Congress are important, it was Trump’s deregulation policies — of which Pruitt’s efforts at the EPA were key — that had engendered an upsurge in business confidence. Under Obama, the willingness of the EPA and other agencies to constantly increase regulations not only added to the cost of business but also made it difficult to plan.
Wheeler can now continue this work without being handicapped by Pruitt’s misjudgments. That won’t stop administration critics from vilifying the new administrator — who will be attacked for his record as a coal-industry lobbyist — and Trump. But at least now the debate can be about the economy and commonsense care for the environment rather than about the global-warming extremism that motivated Obama and the Democrats. That, and not a defense of Pruitt’s foolhardy behavior, is a debate Republicans can win.