Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, already in hot water for everything from his $43,000 soundproof booth to lavish first-class airline travel, is hardly home free. True, President Trump has voiced support and ethically obtuse Republicans including Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, profess no concern with Pruitt’s ethical laxity. Nevertheless, new developments threaten to push him over the edge and out the door.
First, evidence surfaced that he did not tell the truth about approving raises for top aides, one of whom helped him secure housing (itself a violation of government rules that prohibit public employees from performing personal favors for their bosses). Politico reported:
EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson is taking responsibility for controversial raises given to two of Administrator Scott Pruitt’s top aides.
Pruitt has been under fire over a report in The Atlantic last week that he used special hiring authority to give hefty pay increases to two political appointees who joined EPA after working for him in Oklahoma. On Monday, the Atlantic cited two administration officials who said one of the employees had sent an email indicating that Pruitt had signed off on her new salary level. . . . “Administrator Pruitt had zero knowledge of the amount of the raises, nor the process by which they transpired. These kind of personnel actions are handled by EPA’s HR officials, Presidential Personnel Office and me,” Jackson said in a prepared statement Monday.
That is very noble of Jackson, but we will see if that story holds up when employees are asked to make statements under oath and all the evidence comes forward.
Meanwhile Office of Government Ethics acting director David J. Apol, who has had a distinguished career in government service under presidents of both parties, has stepped up to call foul on what administration critics claim is an EPA whitewash of Pruitt’s conduct. The Post reports, “In a letter dated Friday and released Monday, David J. Apol, the acting director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, took the atypical step of telling EPA officials that several recent ethics questions deserve further scrutiny. ‘Public trust demands that all employees act in the public interest, and free from any actual or perceived conflicts,’ he wrote to Kevin Minoli, the EPA’s principal deputy general counsel and the agency’s top ethics official.” Former OGE director and frequent Trump critic Walter Shaub tweeted his approval:
Pruitt’s biggest problem however may be House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). Since Gowdy announced is retiring, he has shown remarkable candor about his colleagues and the administration. He is planning hearings on Pruitt and recently was recorded as saying in regard in the embattled EPA administrator, “I don’t have a lot of patience for that kind of stuff.” He added, “I’m not sure he’s going to make it that long. It gets worse every time there’s a report in the news.”
We should not minimize the degree to which this president and Congress condone corruption and misconduct. This is the GOP’s tribalism writ large. So long as you are on Team Trump and dutifully carrying out the president’s agenda, the standards Republicans apply to Democrats are inoperative. The irony is that for all the praise of Pruitt, he has not actually accomplished as much as advertised. Yes, he has announced many regulatory rollbacks, but as reports have documented, six major initiatives to suspend or roll back EPA rules are tied up in court. Politico’s Michael Grunwald recently wrote:
Pruitt did not kill or roll back Obama’s strict fuel-efficiency standards; he merely announced his intention to launch a process that could eventually weaken them. In fact, Pruitt has not yet killed or rolled back any significant regulations that were in place when President Donald Trump took office. While Pruitt is often hailed (or attacked) as Trump’s most effective (or destructive) deregulatory warrior, the recent spotlight on his ethics—allegations of a sweetheart housing deal; pay raises for favored aides; lavish spending on travel, furniture and security; and retaliation against underlings who questioned him—has arguably overshadowed his lack of regulatory rollbacks during his first 15 months in Washington. The truth is that Scott Pruitt has done a lot less to dismantle the EPA than he—or his critics—would have you believe. . . .
Pruitt’s problem is that major federal regulations are extremely difficult and time-consuming to enact, and just as difficult and time-consuming to reverse. The rulemaking process can take years of technical and administrative work that Pruitt and his team have not yet had time to do. And even if Pruitt manages to keep his job long enough to complete that process for any of his efforts to weaken clean-air and clean-water rules, the EPA will inevitably face years of litigation over each one.
Think of it this way: Pruitt has gotten as far in his deregulation crusade as Trump has in building his wall.
In many respects, Pruitt is the president’s twin. Both make bold pronouncements to convey the impression of action without accomplishing the stated goals. Both demonstrate skepticism over climate science and disregard sources of independent information. Most critically, both fail to comprehend the meaning of public service, viewing government as there to serve them, not the other way around.
Ironically, Democrats would benefit politically from Pruitt remaining as the poster boy for the GOP’s bad behavior (and the GOP’s unwillingness to conduct oversight); Republicans would be better off dumping him. Expect Pruitt to appear in many midterm election ads — for Democrats.