Scott Pruitt’s resignation should be good news. As former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, he is the subject of at least 13 investigations. His rampage through the EPA is the stuff of legend, and it will feature prominently in annual ethics training sessions across the executive branch for years to come. We are, indeed, fortunate to be rid of him, but the wreckage he leaves behind is no cause for celebration.
Pruitt’s tenure establishes conclusively that President Trump doesn’t care about government ethics, and Congress won’t do anything about it. Pruitt may have been the most extreme offender, but the Trump administration is failing to live up to the animating principles of public service. In some sense, Pruitt’s failures represent a broader failure of government.
Following the announcement of Pruitt’s resignation, the president expressed gratitude for Pruitt’s government service and told reporters he remained unbothered by the allegations of misconduct. Perhaps even more troubling is the complicity of certain members of Congress who could have done more to demand the White House rein in or remove Pruitt. To his credit, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is investigating several of the allegations against Pruitt. But others with the power to conduct meaningful oversight failed to fulfill their constitutional duty.
Incredibly, Gowdy’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), denied having jurisdiction over Pruitt’s ethics violations. Just two years ago, Johnson took a much broader view of his jurisdiction when he investigated the effect of the EPA’s environmental regulations on farmers and ranchers. Moreover, Johnson’s committee directly oversees the executive branch ethics program and asserts jurisdiction to investigate, government-wide, “the possible existence of . . . mismanagement, incompetence, corruption or unethical practices, waste, extravagance, conflicts of interest, and the improper expenditure of Government funds.”
The Senate body with primary responsibility for overseeing the EPA, the Environment and Public Works Committee, conducted an almost absurdly narrow inquiry into Pruitt’s use of multiple email accounts. Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) later responded to Pruitt’s resignation by lauding his performance and noting only that pending investigations had made the EPA’s work challenging.
Some members of Congress sought to provide cover for Pruitt. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) bizarrely accused “Obama and his media cronies” of trying to drive Pruitt out of government, ignoring the fact that President Trump would get to choose any replacement for Pruitt. Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.) denounced criticism of Pruitt as “a classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism.” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) cast Pruitt as a “victim of Washington politics.” Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) went so far as to attack his fellow members for carrying out their oversight responsibilities when Pruitt testified at a congressional hearing: “It’s shameful today that this hearing has turned into a personal attack hearing and a shameful attempt to denigrate the work that’s being done at the EPA.”
Others communicated indifference or hesitancy. Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) dismissed the scandal as a “distraction.” Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), whose former staffer is now acting EPA administrator, mused publicly about the authenticity of allegations against Pruitt. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) declared the scandal to be “between the president and the administrator,” a view also articulated by Rep. Pete Olson (R-Tex.). For his part, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) simply said, “Frankly, I haven’t paid that close attention to it.”
In this context, the legacy of the Scott Pruitt scandal is a failure of oversight and the establishment of a low bar for government ethics. Following his resignation, the president rated Pruitt’s service to the public “outstanding” and declared him a “terrific guy.” This parting praise supports a theory that Pruitt’s sycophancy and dogged commitment to Trump’s policy objectives overrode ethics concerns and enabled him to survive as long as he did. In lieu of ethics, what Trump seems to demand is personal loyalty. Pruitt seems to have understood this all too well, reiterating his loyalty to Trump even in his resignation letter: “It is extremely difficult for me to cease serving you in this role first because I count it a blessing to be serving you in any capacity, but also, because of the transformative work that is occurring. . . . Thank you again Mr. President for the honor of serving you and I wish you Godspeed in all that you put your hand to.”
Pruitt’s servile pledge of loyalty to his former boss stands in stark contrast to the prime directive of the executive branch ethics program, which President George H.W. Bush established by executive order and is now codified in regulations as the “basic obligation of public service.” That directive commands loyalty not to an individual politician but to the “Constitution, laws and ethical principles” so that “every citizen can have complete confidence in the integrity of the Federal Government.”
Other presidential appointees looking to misuse their official positions may benefit from emulating Pruitt’s devotion to their boss. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, for instance, recently drew scrutiny for appearing to promote her family’s shipping businesses when she participated in official interviews with her father. Under the new Pruitt standard, Chao can likely count on using one of many free passes to avoid accountability for this appearance of impropriety. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke remains a formidable contender to place highly in the competition to be the most unethical Cabinet official, but even he may have a few more free passes to burn before overtaking Pruitt. The same is most likely true of certain questionable filings by senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
The damage to the executive branch ethics program is profound. A bad ethical tone from the top, which began with Trump’s refusal to divest his conflicting financial interests, continues to erode that program. Trump’s commendation of the departing Pruitt is as strong a statement as a leader can send to devalue the importance of ethics in government.
The foundational principle that public service is a public trust is now on the ropes. Those in Congress who share responsibility for Pruitt’s ethical failures will find it difficult to avoid looking hypocritical if they demand ethical conduct from appointees in this administration or the next. Gowdy is a notable exception, but he is leaving Congress. It is time for his colleagues to step up their oversight of this administration’s ethical failings. The road to redemption may require an acknowledgment of responsibility for failing to oversee the EPA’s administrator and a recommitment to enforcing government ethics. As for the executive branch, Trump can start by curtailing his praise of the current holder of the title “most unethical Cabinet member in modern history.”