It’s not clear what threats have been issued against Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. Patrick Sullivan, the agency’s assistant inspector general, has repeatedly insisted that more threats have been issued against Pruitt than against past EPA officials — a total of 70 in 2017, Sullivan told E&E News, compared with 45 in 2016.
Examples of those threats, though, are hard to come by. E&E pointed to two investigations, one a tweet targeting Pruitt and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the other an “obscene postcard” sent to the EPA. Sullivan told CNN in November that someone had threatened Pruitt by saying “I’m going to put a bullet in your brain” — but three weeks before that interview, a representative of the agency told BuzzFeed’s Jason Leopold that she’d found no record of death threats issued against Pruitt. (A Washington Post Freedom of Information Act request about threats to Pruitt filed in October has not received a response.) The administrator famously insisted that his use of first-class travel was necessitated by having been accosted by other passengers on a flight, but the Associated Press reported over the weekend that Pruitt flies coach when the agency isn’t covering the tab.
“A nationwide search of state and federal court records by AP found no case where anyone has been arrested or charged with threatening Pruitt,” the AP report continued. “EPA’s press office did not respond Friday to provide details of any specific threats or arrests.”
In total, Pruitt’s security has cost nearly $3 million since he assumed his position. It’s a huge price tag that, early on, drew resources from elsewhere in the agency.
Of all of the ethical questions surrounding Pruitt, and there are many, his spending on security is one of the most remarkable. It’s at the root of many other questions: his travel costs, spending on furniture in his office and allegations reported Thursday by the New York Times that he demoted people who questioned his spending.
That spending and those ancillary actions contributed to a scathing letter sent by the Office of Government Ethics to the EPA’s general counsel Friday. It questions the issues above and the rest of the Pruitt ethics diaspora, such as his low-cost rental agreement with the wife of a lobbyist who had business before the agency. The OGE letter challenges the EPA to look closely at Pruitt’s actions.
“The success of our Government depends on maintaining the trust of the people we serve,” it reads. “The American public needs to have confidence that ethics violations, as well as the appearance of ethics violations, are investigated and appropriately addressed.” If the EPA finds a violation, “OGE also expects that appropriate action will be taken in response.”
There’s good reason to assume that no action would be taken.
Many ethics allegations have been issued against senior members of the Trump administration. Some are gone, such as former Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin (who received free tickets to Wimbledon, among other things) and former Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price (who took hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of charter flights). Others have faced no significant punishment beyond public embarrassment, such as the expensive furniture sought by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson or the multiple violations of the Hatch Act found by the Office of Special Counsel. That includes violations by presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, social media director Dan Scavino and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, none of whom appear to have been punished in any major way.
But the most significant reason to assume that Pruitt isn’t poised for any punishment is that his boss, President Trump, has already weighed the evidence and come to his defense.
Luckily for Trump, Twitter expanded its limit to 280 characters, allowing the president to wave away all of the concerns about Pruitt in one tweet.
Why did Trump defend Pruitt despite the slew of ethical questions surrounding him? One reason, certainly, is that Pruitt’s activism at the EPA has made him both loathed by the left and celebrated by the right. Although few people on the right were all that agitated about Price before he got fired, there was an active push in the conservative media to preserve Pruitt as allegations against him snowballed last week. Rush Limbaugh described Pruitt as “the single biggest target of the left” on his show last week. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) put the argument succinctly in a tweet of his own.
Trump’s campaign pledge to drain the swamp would seem to be at odds with protecting Pruitt so quickly after questions were raised. But seeing Pruitt as a thumb in the eye of the left helps explain why Trump is happy to keep him around.
Nor has Trump ever seemed too worried about bolstering the ethical norms of the presidency. The first major-party candidate in 40 years not to release his taxes is now the president earning income from people who stop by his hotel in Washington — including those people who hold public events there with an eye toward making their spending obvious to the chief executive.
Trump may think Pruitt is not guilty of overspending on security, of getting an unfair deal on rent and of spending too much on travel, as his tweet states. But he may also have been trying to decide between firing Pruitt, handing some kind of win to the left (and having another nomination fight on his hands) and simply looking the other way. He may have decided that politics were more important than ethics.
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Pruitt’s insistence that his life has been threatened has been blown out of proportion. That his 24-hour-a-day security protection is not based on need but on desire, rendering Trump’s defense of his spending obsolete.
Trump subsequently arguing that dishonesty is a prohibitive quality for an official in his administration would be dissonant in its own way.