This is, to say the least, a curious position for the EPA administrator to hold. Appointing Pruitt to that job was a little like making the head of the antiwar group Code Pink the secretary of defense, or picking Bernie Madoff to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission. You would have been hard-pressed to find a public official anywhere in the country more vehemently opposed to the EPA as an institution or to its basic mission as Pruitt, who as the attorney general of Oklahoma had spent a significant portion of his time in office suing the EPA to stop its enforcement of environmental laws.
But now Pruitt is in trouble, from the accumulated weight of scandals we’ve known about for months, as well as a new round of revelations. In fact, just the last 24 hours have seen an avalanche of unflattering stories about Pruitt. It is almost as though there is some kind of coordinated effort to get him fired — or to provide a justification for his firing when it comes. Let’s run down those, and the ones from before, just to get a sense of the magnitude:
- Pruitt has been renting a room in a Capitol Hill townhouse from the wife of an energy company lobbyist for a mere $50 a night, an unusual arrangement under which he doesn’t have to pay for the nights he isn’t there. Last year, the EPA signed off on a pipeline extension sought by a company represented by that lobbying firm.
- The townhouse is apparently a prime locale for GOP fundraising events, including some that have taken place while Pruitt was in town, though his office says he did not attend any of them.
- Pruitt asked the White House to approve large salary increases for two of his close aides. When he was rebuffed, he found an obscure provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act that allowed him to reappoint the aides at the higher salaries without anyone else’s permission.
- Pruitt tasked one of those aides with shopping for housing for him in Washington, an apparent violation of ethics rules.
- Pruitt has insisted on flying first-class for trips around the country and the world. In one instance, he bought a $1,600 ticket to fly from Washington to New York for a television appearance. The need to sit in the first-class cabin with its spacious seating and limitless macadamia nuts is supposedly because of “security concerns,” which seem to mainly consist of the fact that people in airports have occasionally confronted Pruitt in a rude way, accusing him of doing harm to the environment. Once the extent of his luxury travel became public, Pruitt said he would begin flying coach like other government officials.
- Pruitt’s aides explored the idea of the administrator purchasing a share in a private plane from NetJets, for which they were quoted a price of $100,000 a month (they decided not to go ahead).
- Pruitt is the first EPA administrator ever to demand a 24/7 security detail, which consists of dozens of agents and will cost the taxpayer millions of dollars per year. Pruitt takes these agents when he’s on personal business, “including trips home to Tulsa, Oklahoma, a family vacation to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl game.”
- Pruitt insisted that the EPA construct a secure phone booth for him in his office, at a cost of $43,000, so no one could listen in on his super-secret conversations. He also sometimes requires employees to leave their cellphones behind and refuses to let them take notes when they meet with him.
- Pruitt has had his office swept for listening devices and installed high-tech biometric locks, perhaps in the belief that Jason Bourne has resurfaced in Prague and is coming after him.
- Pruitt created a task force to oversee the Superfund program and his appointment to lead it was an Oklahoma banker who had no environmental expertise and had actually been banned from the banking industry for life — but did have the distinction of having loaned Pruitt nearly $1 million over the years.
And that’s just the personal stuff. Pruitt has also had an endless string of meetings with oil companies, coal companies, and corporate lobbyists eager to weaken environmental regulations. He meets with representatives of the energy industry more often than any other sector, while environmental groups make up only 1 percent of his meetings. He has tried to weaken clean-air rules, moved to increase greenhouse gas emissions, gutted enforcement of pollution laws, removed scientists from advisory panels so they could be replaced by representatives of polluting industries, pushed for the United States to leave the Paris climate accord, and just this week announced that fuel-efficiency standards will be rolled back, potentially dramatically increasing auto emissions.
As vulgar as Pruitt’s personal conduct is, it is on these policy actions where he’s doing the most damage. But there is no reason to think President Trump cares one way or another about the environment, nor to believe that Trump would even be angry about the way Pruitt has conducted himself. Trump is perfectly comfortable with members of his administration using the power of their offices for their own personal benefit; after all, he himself has been aggressively monetizing the presidency from the day he took office. No, what can get you fired in this administration is one of two things: you embarrass Trump, or you get too much attention for yourself, revealing that you hold your own ambitions above serving the boss.
Pruitt certainly has ambition, perhaps as high as running for president himself one day. The question is whether this spate of stories will prove too much to overlook. Yesterday, Politico reported that White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly is considering sacking Pruitt. But this morning Jacqueline Alemany of CBS News reported:
So the White House wants to communicate, for now at least, that Pruitt has Trump’s support — which still leaves open the question of whether all those unflattering stories coming out at once was the result of a coordinated effort and, if so, by whom. But if there is one thing we know, it’s that you can lose favor quickly if Trump decides you’re getting too much attention, which means Pruitt could be gone before long.
There is no telling whom Trump would appoint to replace Pruitt, but it is hard to imagine he could find anyone worse.