Sweating in the August heat following President Trump’s controversial claim that demonstrators on “both sides” were to blame for the violence in Charlottesville, two Cabinet officials distanced themselves from their boss.
When rallying troops stationed abroad, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said, “You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other.”
When asked on Fox News whether Trump’s comment represents American values, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson simply said, “The president speaks for himself.”
But not every department head has diverged as sharply from Trump’s combative communication style, on display at that Trump Tower news conference during which, in addition to that “both side” broadside, Trump labeled the media “fake news” and said he watched the protests “much more closely than you people” — meaning reporters — “watched it.”
Some Cabinet officials, in fact, have embraced Trump's method for manhandling the media. Consider Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and the response of his media shop to an Associated Press story over the weekend.
On Saturday, the wire service published a story on the flooding of more than a dozen Superfund sites in the Houston area after Hurricane Harvey. In their story, the reporters visited one toxic cleanup site in Southeast Texas by boat, and other sites by foot or vehicle.
The AP reported that EPA officials had not yet arrived on the scene. As it reported in an early version of the story:
The Associated Press visited seven Superfund sites in and around Houston during the flooding. All had been inundated with water; some were accessible only by boat.
EPA spokeswoman Amy Graham could not immediately provide details on when agency experts would inspect the Houston-area sites. She said Friday that EPA staff had checked on two other Superfund sites in Corpus Christi and found no significant damage.
"We will begin to assess other sites after flood waters recede in those areas," Graham said.
The following day, the agency issued a news release titled “EPA Response To The AP’s Misleading Story.” In it, the EPA took on Washington-based AP reporter Michael Biesecker in direct and personal terms."Yesterday, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker wrote an incredibly misleading story about toxic land sites that are under water," it read. "Despite reporting from the comfort of Washington, Biesecker had the audacity to imply that agencies aren’t being responsive to the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey. Not only is this inaccurate, but it creates panic and politicizes the hard work of first responders who are actually in the affected area."
The release went on to criticize past reporting by Biesecker, listing an article that was corrected: "Unfortunately, the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker has a history of not letting the facts get in the way of his story. Earlier this summer, he made-up a meeting that Administrator Pruitt had, and then deliberately discarded information that refuted his inaccurate story – ultimately prompting a nation-wide correction.' (here's the correction and the Breitbart coverage of the story, both cited in the EPA release).
Here's the thing: The EPA was indeed monitoring the waste sites by plane until the floodwaters receded — a point, the EPA's press office argued, that should have been mentioned in the original AP story. But the agency did not dispute any of the facts in the AP's report. In fact, it confirmed the story. “Eleven sites have proven to be inaccessible for response teams,” the news release read, “however the agency said teams are in place to inspect the areas once flooding from the storm subsides.”
Indeed, other AP journalists, weighing in to defend their colleagues, accusing the EPA itself of being misleading. The news release singled out Biesecker for not being on the ground in Houston. But the EPA did not note was that the AP had journalists other than Biesecker reporting from the flood zone.
EPA says this story was reported from "comfort of Washington." Photos, video, details in report suggest otherwise. https://t.co/oTeqOw8c6X— Julie Pace (@jpaceDC) September 3, 2017
AP colleagues used a boat, and calculated but inevitable risk of exposure comes with visiting a disturbed Superfind site. https://t.co/3nyGj8tZ0T— Frank Bajak (@fbajak) September 3, 2017
AP executive editor Sally Buzbee defended the reporters as well:
That line of media criticism — that national reporters are often loathe to get their hands dirty (or in this case, their feet wet) by leaving Washington or New York and doing field reporting — is simply not applicable in the case of this AP story. The news syndication service has reporters in all 50 states and, because its stories appear in hundreds of U.S. newspapers, tends not to veer into editorializing.
The EPA's line might as well have come out of Trump's Twitter feed. Indeed, the same day the AP published its story and President Trump visited the hurricane-hit region, the president knocked the media while backslapping the Coast Guard for saving 11,000 people.
“Think of it, almost 11,000 people by going into winds that the media would not go into," Trump said in Houston, before gesturing toward the media.
That offhand critique prompted this exasperated response from Bill Bishop, managing editor at Houston's KHOU:
As far as engagement with the press goes, Pruitt has proven to be the most Trump-like member of Trump's cabinet.
Consider Paris: In the spring, Trump administration officials were sharply divided on what to do about the Paris climate accords, with Trump's daughter Ivanka and Tillerson arguing that the United States should stay in the agreement while White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and Pruitt pushed for withdrawal.
Only the anti-Paris cause had an administration advocate in Pruitt on the president's favorite medium. After Trump decided on exiting the agreement, the EPA administrator was again willing to go on television to be the anti-Paris face of the White House and take the heat for rolling back Obama's most important achievement on combating global warming. By all appearances, Pruitt handled that round of interview in June better than he did an April appearance on Fox News that Breitbart News condemned as one in which he "sweated, stuttered, and floundered."
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Big week coming up!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 5, 2017
— Indeed, it's not just a big week, but a big month! As Congress returns to Washington today, one of the first items on a crowded agenda is a $7.85 billion emergency aid package for the victims of Harvey in storm-ravaged Texas and Louisiana.
House lawmakers will vote on a relief bill that includes the immediate funding the White House requested on Friday, reported The Post’s Laurie McGinley and Mike DeBonis. The House Appropriations Committee released the bill on Sunday, which includes $7.4 billion in funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $450 million for the Small Business Administration’s disaster loan program.
The White House asked lawmakers to appropriate $7.85 billion for an initial response to Harvey, though the initial request also called on Congress to immediately raise the debt ceiling to avoid running out of cash. McGinley and DeBonis add: "It does not include a provision to raise the federal debt limit, something that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a 'Fox News Sunday' interview would be necessary."
The Post’s Damian Paletta and DeBonis write: “If the debt ceiling isn’t raised soon, the U.S. government will only have enough cash to continue funding its operations through September 29, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has told lawmakers. Appropriating emergency money to help with the Harvey response will accelerate that deadline by several days, Mnuchin has said.”
Even after approving this first wave of hurricane-relief funding, the political fighting over helping after Harvey will be far from over. Consider what happened after Hurricane Sandy. Help came in two parts after that storm — a quick vote in late 2012 for a $9.7 billion increase in FEMA borrowing power for flood relief (similar in scale to the $7.85 billion package being considered this month) and then a broader $50.5 billion package. It was that second bill that proved harder to pass (though it did pass) after many Republicans in Congress (including those representing Texas, then and now) voted against it, saying it was laden with spending provisions unrelated to the hurricane.
-- One other September possibility: taxes. There's a lot on Congress's brutally long to-do list this month— raising the debt ceiling, extending health insurance for low-income children — that will put energy and environmental policy on the back burner.
But the GOP's dream of rewriting the tax code is front-and-center. A few things to watch out for:
- Carbon tax: Expect to see congressional Democrats, such as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), push their longshot proposal to tie a carbon tax into an overall tax reform package, should Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) need the Democratic votes.
- Tax credits for carbon capture and storage: Advocates for making carbon capture economically viable say the existing tax credit for the technology is simply too small to spur investment. So expect to see lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, such as the four senators who introduced a bill last month, make carbon capture a part of the comprehensive tax debate.
- Tax credits for "orphaned" renewables: Also expect to see the lobby for renewable energy technologies, whose tax credits were dropped after a "drafting error" at the end of 2015 -- such as geothermal pumps, fuel cells, and combined-heat-and-power units -- use a tax bill as an opportunity to try to restore those lost credits.
-- Irony alert: The crisis at a flooded chemical plant in Crosby, Tex. will be investigated by a federal agency that President Trump wants to eliminate, The Post’s Chris Mooney reported. The Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board announced it would look into the incident after there were two explosions on site early Thursday morning.
The agency could determine whether sidestepped safety regulations contributed to the explosions. The Trump administration’s proposed budget would wind down funding for the small federal agency.
-- Irony alert, round two: In the aftermath of Harvey’s destruction, the Trump administration is considering implementing requirements similar to the very Obama-era flood regulations the president undid just weeks ago,in order to build higher in flood-prone areas.
The Post’s Juliet Eilperin tells us all about it: “This potential policy shift underscores the extent to which the reality of this week’s storm has collided with Trump officials’ push to upend President Barack Obama’s policies and represents a striking acknowledgment by an administration skeptical of climate change that the government must factor changing weather into some of its major infrastructure policies.”
The Obama administration rules intended to reduce the risks posed by flooding by requiring some construction projects funded through FEMA's assistance programs be built between two and three feet above the 100-year flood elevation. It would have also placed a similar requirement on Housing and Urban Development-financed projects, such as multifamily housing complexes.
-- Looking for "the double C-word": The EPA has taken the “the unusual step of putting a political operative in charge of vetting the hundreds of millions of dollars in grants the EPA distributes annually, assigning final funding decisions to a former Trump campaign aide with little environmental policy experience,” reports The Post’s Eilperin.
John Konkus, who works in the agency’s public affairs office, reviews every grant solicitation and award, looking for potential references to climate change and instructing grant officers to remove references in solicitations, Eilperin writes. EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told The Post that grant decisions “are to ensure funding is in line with the Agency’s mission and policy priorities,” with the number of awards denied amounting to just 1 percent of those made since EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt took office.
How it was done before: Several officials from the Obama and George W. Bush administrations said they had never heard of a public affairs officer scrutinizing EPA’s grants.
The EPA is not alone: Grants, it seems, are where the war between the Trump administration and advocates for climate science is currently being waged. Just last week, the Energy Department faced a round of criticism for asking scientists to scrub "climate change" from grant proposals.
-- Bad chemical romance: The Arkema site is not the only chemical plant in Texas that poses a risk from the Texas Gulf Coast flooding. Other oil refineries and chemical plants across the state released more than 1 million pounds of pollutants into the air in the week following Harvey’s landfall, writes The Post’s Steven Mufson, from reported flaring, leaks and chemical discharges.
Emissions have surpassed permitted levels. Some of the chemicals that have been emitted include benzene, 1,3-butadiene, hexane, hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, toluene and xylene. Some of these chemicals can cause cancer. All of them are harmful to human health.
There are more than 1,300 chemical plants in the state of Texas, many of which are built in flood-vulnerable areas.
“The Crosby plant’s dangerous situation is a symptom of a bigger problem involving the oil and chemical industry in the Gulf region,” Bill Hoyle, an independent safety consultant and former senior investigator for the Chemical Safety Board, told The Post. “The Crosby plant is a wake-up call for an industry and their safety regulators who have not adequately taken action on lessons from Hurricane Katrina as well as the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.”
-- Meanwhile in Crosby: People living near the Arkema plant have been allowed to return to their homes after officials implemented a 1.5-mile evacuation zone last week. The company set fire to the remaining volatile chemicals in a “controlled ignition,” Bloomberg reported. “The perimeter of the Arkema Crosby site is secured,” the company said in a Monday statement. “Arkema will continue to work with its neighbors and the community to recover from the substantial impact of Hurricane Harvey.”
-- Measuring Harvey's political headwinds: Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, criticized the Trump administration’s effort to scale back the programs that could prevent such an accident.
"I am concerned that the President’s FY 2018 budget request proposed to cut the EPA program responsible for inspecting chemical facilities to ensure they are safe by almost 35 percent,” he wrote, according to the Washington Examiner. "I am also concerned that you recently decided to delay the implementation of a rule to improve the safety and emergency preparedness of chemical facilities by two years."
What's happening: Even if that chemical safety rule undone by Trump wouldn't have gone into effect by the time Harvey hit, the hurricane has provided Democrats critical of Trump's environmental policy the chance to highlight the potential fallout of deregulation. Carper won't be the only Democrat making that point.
Irma watch: Hurricane Irma strengthened to a Category 5 storm overnight, Capital Weather Gang’s Greg Porter and Angela Fritz report this morning. The National Hurricane Center called it an “extremely dangerous” hurricane in its latest advisory, warning that “preparations should be rushed to completion in the hurricane warning area.” Porter and Fritz note that Irma is likely to make direct landfall on the United States coast this weekend.
Tuesday morning, NOAA Hurricane Hunters found the storm’s maximum wind speeds are 175 mph. It now ranks among the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. Forecasts suggest it will reach southern Florida and the Gulf of Mexico this weekend.
As it tracks west toward the Caribbean, hurricane warnings have been issued for portions of the Leeward Islands and the Greater Antilles. A hurricane warning is in effect for Puerto Rico.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), along with his counterpart in Puerto Rico, have each declared a state of emergency ahead of the storm’s arrival.
I have declared a state of emergency for every FL county to help state, federal and local governments work together as we prepare for #Irma.— Rick Scott (@FLGovScott) September 4, 2017
But already, even before the storm makes landfall, Scott's critics — such as Jeff Goodell, author of a book about sea-level rise — are using the storm to point out the governor's climate change policy, which famously includes a largely unwritten rule of not mentioning it at state agencies:
Big climate deniers like Gov. Scott always like to sound prepared when a monster storm is blowing in. Too late, dude. https://t.co/P483lVoCfS— Jeff Goodell (@jeffgoodell) September 5, 2017
(Though climate change does not "cause" hurricanes, the higher sea levels global warming has produced, such as those in Miami, can make storm surges more intense.)
— New Yorker cartoonist Chris Ware, a University of Texas at Austin graduate, reflected on his occasional visits to Houston while in college, and the scenes that would inspire the cover he drew for this week’s magazine.
“I liked Houston for its big buildings, its diversity, and its slack zoning laws, which made neighborhoods unpredictable and surprising,” he writes.
Read more of his reflections here.
- Congress returns to Washington from recess.
- House lawmakers are scheduled to consider the Harvey relief bill on Wednesday.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations holds a hearing on unimplemented recommendations for the EPA from the OIG and GAO on Wednesday.
- The House Science Subcommittees on the Environment and Oversight holds a hearing on the EPA’s IRIS program on Wednesday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a legislative hearing on three bills on Wednesday.
- Georgetown Univesity hosts an event on the social, economic and financial challenges in energy inclusion on Wednesday with Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.).
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources holds a hearing on the nominations of Joseph Balash to be Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management, Richard Glick and Kevin McIntyre to be members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Ryan Nelson to be Solicitor of the Department of the Interior.
- Atlantic Council holds a panel discussion on “Science Exchanges with Iran” on Friday.
President Trump meets first responders in Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Harvey:
President Trump voices support for Harvey victims in weekly address;
Fact Check: The Senate Leadership Fund's assertions about Kelli Ward and chemtrails:
Watch Stephen Colbert talk about the Swamp-themed edition of Late Show's "Alter Egos":