The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Shift at EPA shows technocrats are replacing big-personality Cabinet members

Andrew Wheeler stepped into the role of acting Environmental Protection Agency administrator after Scott Pruitt resigned.
Andrew Wheeler stepped into the role of acting Environmental Protection Agency administrator after Scott Pruitt resigned. (Alex Edelman/Associated Press)

Scott Pruitt was known inside the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters for sipping $10 organic juice infused with kale, sporting Ferragamo shoes with his Hickey Freeman suits, and making biblical references in texts and conversations with aides.

Andrew Wheeler, on the other hand, is a policy wonk who keeps his religious views private and collects Coca-Cola memorabilia.

That contrast has come to the fore as Wheeler prepares to take the helm of the agency on Monday in the wake of Pruitt’s resignation amid allegations of overspending and ethical misconduct. It speaks to the shift that has been underway — in fits and starts — as Trump’s Cabinet transitions from a team stocked with high-profile personalities who joined in the early days of the administration to one with a growing number of technocrats.

While the Cabinet still includes unconventional picks, such as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, a former surgeon, it is increasingly filling with more experienced Washington hands. The Department of Health and Human Services is now led by Alex Azar, a former pharmaceutical executive who served as the department’s deputy secretary under George W. Bush. And Trump has nominated Robert Wilkie, who developed his military policy experience over three decades on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch, to serve as Veterans Affairs secretary.

Josh Holmes, a longtime adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said in an interview Friday that almost every administration has high-profile secretaries who “usually give way to lower-profile folks that actually run the department. I think they probably run them better.”

“You’re dealing with people who know how to actually do bureaucracies,” Holmes added.

In some cases, the handovers have been spurred by Cabinet members’ own behavior: In addition to Pruitt, HHS Secretary Tom Price and VA Secretary David Shulkin lost their jobs after their costly travel practices came under scrutiny.

Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, noted that Trump moved quickly to fill his Cabinet after the 2016 election and largely ignored the materials prepared by his transition head, Chris Christie, then the governor of New Jersey.

“You have to ask the question, did he choose right? It’s hard to argue yes,” Stier said.

Trump, according to two of his advisers, remains unhappy about having to get rid of Pruitt. But White House officials — particularly Chief of Staff John F. Kelly — made the case that Wheeler could accomplish the same regulatory rollbacks without the drama.

In Trump’s phone call with Wheeler on Thursday, according to two senior administration officials, the president expressed concern that the swirling controversy over Pruitt’s moves to enlist employees in personal tasks and spend taxpayer funds on high-end travel had demoralized “Trump people” at the EPA — including some who had left.

In an interview Friday, Wheeler said that his quarter-century in Washington had prepared him for this moment.

“I’ve realized that I’m going to be walking into a job that’s a lot more high-profile than what I would have wanted,” he said. “But I really do think that [with] my background, at this point in time, that this is the right job for me.”

Wheeler is likely to stay acting administrator for the foreseeable future, White House officials said, because they do not expect any other nominee to be confirmed before the midterms.

Firing Pruitt was seen among many of Trump’s hard-line advisers as giving in to the left without merit.

“This is going to have much larger implications than people think,” said Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former strategist, in an interview. “Pruitt was strategic in the deconstruction of the administrative state at EPA, which is the beating heart of this regulatory Leviathan.”

“Pruitt was relatively unique in combining a deep understanding of the issues with the legal chops to take action,” he said. “The opposition-party media got a scalp, and it was a big one.”

But both Republicans and Democrats said Wheeler has far more energy and environmental policy experience than Pruitt and has shown a willingness to forge compromises with the other party.

On Friday, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee’s top Democrat, Thomas R. Carper (Del.) — who worked with Wheeler when he was a staffer on retrofitting buses with cleaner diesel engines — urged him to seize the opportunity he faces.

“While you and I have not always agreed, and will not always agree, on every environmental policy matter, it is my hope and expectation that you will carefully consider the lessons of the past as you prepare to chart the Agency’s future,” Carper wrote in a letter to Wheeler.

Wheeler said he does not envision significant changes in policy direction. “I don’t think the overall agenda is going to change that much, because we are implementing what the president has laid out for the agency,” he said.

But even as he declined to comment on his predecessor’s approach to the job, Wheeler said he would put a premium on transparency. “The more transparent we are, the better understood our decisions will be.”

Joseph Stanko, a partner at the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth, said in an interview that Wheeler is empowered to peel back many Obama-era rules and will focus on getting the details right to avert legal challenges.

“If you’re a regulatory geek on environmental policy, this is going to be the golden age of wonks,” Stanko said. “The direction to do it has already been given, and it doesn’t matter if there’s a trade war going on or if Kim Jong Un does or does not have nuclear weapons. You don’t have to barge your way into the Oval Office.”

Many of the men and women Wheeler hired when he was staff director on the Environment and Public Works Committee under Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) are serving in senior posts throughout the Trump administration. Nicknamed the “has-beens” by Inhofe, they include Ryan Jackson, EPA chief of staff; Alex Herrgott, Council on Environmental Quality associate director; Francis R. Fannon, assistant secretary of state for energy resources; and Annie Caputo, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission member.

But Wheeler — who recused himself from strategy sessions on Pruitt’s ethics woes — has devoted most of his time to internal agency policy briefings and meetings with career staff since joining the EPA in April. In contrast to the schedule Pruitt kept — crisscrossing the country to speak at industry gatherings, granting media interviews and meeting privately with governors, energy executives and agricultural groups — Wheeler’s time at EPA has been decidedly more workmanlike.

His public calendar shows internal briefings with EPA staffers and rounds of meetings with his counterparts at other agencies and the White House, along with a smattering of industry meetings with groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Chemistry Council.

He has taken time to visit at least three EPA regional offices — in Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York — as well as the agency’s campus in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. While Pruitt flew to dozens of states, the majority of Wheeler’s meetings took place in the same spot: EPA headquarters in Washington.

Pruitt expressed frustration at the financial constraints he faced as administrator, maintaining an $850,000 mortgage in Oklahoma and an upscale Washington apartment on his $189,600 salary. Wheeler arrives in a much better financial position.

His financial disclosure shows that he earned a $741,074 salary and bonus from his law firm, Faegre Baker Daniels, before arriving at the EPA, along with at least 11 other sources of income.

In emails released under public records requests, Wheeler showed that his time in the private sector has earned him a reputation as an industry ally — as well as a sense of humor about it.

In October, days after President Trump nominated him to become the agency’s second-in-command, Wheeler forwarded a link from the satirical news site The Onion to a group that included energy-industry representatives, colleagues at his law firm and Jackson, Pruitt’s chief of staff.

The headline: “EPA Promotes Pulsating Black Sludge to Deputy Director.”

“Welcome, pulsating black sludge,” Jackson replied. “I guess I’m going to have to have the cleaning crews come in more often.”

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