Dozens of Democrats in Congress are demanding it. So are a handful of Republicans. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly apparently wants it, too.
But what would actually happen if President Trump kicked his embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief, Scott Pruitt, out of his Cabinet?
Some tea-party groups and energy lobbyists fear it would irreparably derail Trump's deregulatory agenda. Meanwhile, environmentalists and Democrats, while happy to claim victory, worry Trump would simply install another EPA head they fear will be just as detrimental to the environment.
Either way, Pruitt's departure from the EPA would be a potential legal and legislative mess.
Over the past several days, Pruitt's allies have mounted a defense of the beleaguered EPA administrator, who is facing questions regarding his frequent use of first-class flights, his rental of a lobbyist-linked condo at a below-market rate and his exploitation of a little-known legal loophole to give large raises to favored aides after the pay bumps were rejected by the White House.
More than 100 conservatives, including the heads of the American Legislative Exchange Council and March for Life Action, along with former attorney general Edwin Meese III and former Republican senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, blasted out an open letter emphasizing their continued support for Pruitt on Friday.
“President Trump campaigned on reducing Washington's bureaucracy, and Administrator Pruitt has been instrumental to that effort,” they wrote.
Over the weekend, Trump signaled his support for Pruitt, for now at least:
While Security spending was somewhat more than his predecessor, Scott Pruitt has received death threats because of his bold actions at EPA. Record clean Air & Water while saving USA Billions of Dollars. Rent was about market rate, travel expenses OK. Scott is doing a great job!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2018
Do you believe that the Fake News Media is pushing hard on a story that I am going to replace A.G. Jeff Sessions with EPA Chief Scott Pruitt, who is doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege? Do people really believe this stuff? So much of the media is dishonest and corrupt!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 6, 2018
Washington conservatives took the tweets as a vote of confidence. "Given President Trump’s recent tweets, it appears that he has full confidence in Administrator Pruitt, who remains the right choice to lead the effort to undo Obama’s harmful regulations and reform an agency that has lost its way," said Tom Pyle, who runs the American Energy Alliance, an advocacy group for the oil and gas sector largely funded by the Charles and David Koch brothers. Pyle was a member of Trump's presidential transition team for energy issues.
Unlike the three Cabinet-level officials Trump has ousted, including then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, conservatives widely regard Pruitt as quick and efficient in taking the necessary steps to undo Obama-era regulations. They also see the EPA administrator as instrumental in convincing Trump to pull out of the Paris climate accords.
And they don't know who would replace him.
“There are a number of good people out there,” said David Rivkin, a partner at the law firm Baker Hostetler who represented Pruitt when he was Oklahoma's attorney general. “But I don’t see anybody matching Scott’s ability to drive the agency to implement the president’s agenda.”
He added, “I don’t see anyone being as bold yet punctilious in crafting legally defensible regulations.”
But some former Obama administration officials and other Democrats say Pruitt has been hasty in rolling back regulations, leaving his decisions vulnerable to being struck down in court. Of California's 14 legal victories against the Trump administration, for example, nine involved environmental issues.
“I’m strongly in the camp that he’s getting kudos that he doesn’t deserve to get,” said David Hayes, who served as the Interior Department’s deputy secretary under both the Obama and Clinton administrations. Hayes runs the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center, which coordinates lawsuits and other actions against the Trump administration among blue-state attorneys general.
“Pruitt’s M.O. has been to govern by press release,” he added, “as opposed to developing a factual record and scientific evidence.”
Support for Pruitt within the GOP has not been unanimous. In recent days, three Republican House members have called for Pruitt to be removed while several Republican senators raised concerns about Pruitt's spending and management practices.
“All of this behavior is juvenile,” Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) said on CBS's “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “It's distracting from the business that we're trying to do for the American people.”
Sens. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine, who was the only Republican senator to vote against confirming Pruitt, echoed Kennedy's concern on the Sunday shows.
Meanwhile, more than 60 House Democrats have called for Pruitt's resignation or firing. “A man under numerous investigations both for ethical concerns and wasteful spending, who has actively moved to undermine environmental rules and regulations at industry request, is antithetical to the job of EPA Administrator,” a group led by Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) wrote to Trump. “Mr. Pruitt needs to go.”
But Pruitt's departure from the EPA would be complicated for several reasons.
Given the GOP's slim 51-to-49 advantage in the Senate, it would be difficult for the chamber to confirm another hard-line conservative EPA head with difficult midterm elections approaching in November. .
Even naming a temporary replacement for Pruitt comes with complications. If the EPA administrator were to leave office, the deputy administrator typically would take their place in an acting role.
But the Senate has yet to confirm Pruitt's No. 2, former coal and nuclear lobbyist Andrew Wheeler. Wheeler will likely face a full Senate vote this week as Congress returns from a two-week recess. Before that vacation, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) filed paperwork allowing for the vote on Wheeler.
For years, Wheeler worked for another Oklahoma Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe, whose office has been a significant source of staffers at Pruitt's EPA. Wheeler's view on steering authority away from the federal government and toward the states is in line with Pruitt's emphasis on “cooperative federalism.”
“I've been a long believer in the state federalism issues and delegating more authority to the states when possible,” Wheeler said in an October 2017 interview with The Washington Post. “And I've really liked what I've heard Administrator Pruitt talk on wanting to clean up more the Superfund sites, trying to get more nonattainment areas to attainment and getting back to the core mission of the agency.”
Environmental advocates fear Wheeler the same way they do Pruitt, at least on policy, and have launched a last-minute bid to sink his nomination.
“Anyone who cares about protecting our communities, protecting taxpayers, and trying to maintain a transparent, accountable government will demand new hearings on Andrew Wheeler and demand the EPA start doing its job to protect the public once again,” John Coequyt, the Sierra Club’s senior director of federal policy, said in a statement.
The EPA's general counsel, Matthew Leopold, is next in the line of succession if Pruitt should exit. Trump could also use his authority under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act to name another Senate-confirmed employee to the job of acting administrator.
But if Pruitt left the job unwillingly, it may make a mess for Trump. Federal statutes dictate the departure of a Senate-confirmed secretary elevates the department’s deputy secretary to that position until a permanent replacement is installed. The text of the Vacancies Act empowers the president to appoint a replacement if the EPA administrator “dies, resigns, or is otherwise unable to perform the functions and duties of the office.” (See the same thing playing out with departed VA Secretary David Shulkin).
The law is silent on whether Trump has that power after the president fires a Cabinet official. “To my knowledge, it has not been litigated,” said Max Stier, who runs the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, a good- governance organization.
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— Drip... The latest in the mounting revelations over Pruitt’s spending habits includes new information about the nearly $3 million his security detail has cost taxpayers, as first reported by the Associated Press. That figure "sheds new light on the unprecedented level of security that has surrounded Pruitt since shortly after he arrived at the agency,” The Post’s Juliet Eilerin and Brady Dennis write.
— ...drip: Politico reports that when his lease for the $50-per-night condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist ended, the EPA chief didn’t leave right away. “Instead, he asked the lobbyist couple who became his disgruntled landlords to revise his lease several times…The couple, Vicki and Steve Hart, became so frustrated by their lingering tenant that they eventually pushed him out and changed their locks. After trying to nudge Pruitt out of their home over the course of several months, the Harts finally told Pruitt in July that they had plans to rent his room to another tenant.”
Who else is souring on Pruitt? In addition to Sen. Kennedy and the House Democrats mentioned above, here's a rundown:
- House Oversight Committee chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) has started to look into Pruitt’s actions. "I don't have a lot patience for that kind of stuff," he said.
- Lindsey Graham said Pruitt has “done a good job” but he is waiting to see what a congressional oversight panel has to say. “The bottom line: This doesn’t look good."
- Susan Collins reiterated her lack of support. “This daily drip of accusations of excessive spending and ethical violations serve to further distract the agency from accomplishing its very important mission."
The Post’s editorial board wrote Pruitt was unfit to serve. “The Blizzard of ethical questions surrounding Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has become a Category 5 storm,” the board wrote.
The editorial board of the Houston Chronicle, the biggest paper in the capital of the U.S. energy sector, wants Pruitt to resign, as well. "Pruitt seems destined to become the next character cut from Trump’s chaotic reality show," it wrote. "Dropping this bad actor can’t happen fast enough."
Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), however, defended Pruitt, suggesting he’s being punished for his work rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations. “The reason why all of the emphasis right now is on Mr. Pruitt is because he is executing these policies,” Rounds said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press.” “And they’re not real popular policies with a lot of people. But he is executing the policies that this president said he would put in place.”
Inside the EPA, "[i]t definitely seems like there’s some backstabbing going on,” one political appointee told Politico. “Everybody is out for themselves right now.”
— Meanwhile, the New York Times and Politico detail how Pruitt has “often been less than rigorous in following important procedures, leading to poorly crafted legal efforts that risk being struck down in court,” as the Times put it.
— Flint fiasco: Michigan will no longer provide free bottled water to the residents of Flint. Some city officials have criticized the decision announced by Gov. Rick Snyder (R) as Flint continues to recover from its lead-tainted water crisis, per the New York Times. But Snyder insisted the city has “worked diligently to restore the water quality and the scientific data now proves the water system is stable and the need for bottled water has ended.”
— “Running out of time:” The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency warned Puerto Rico is “running out of time” before the next hurricane season starts and that the island is not ready for another potential disaster, the Associated Press reports. FEMA chief Brock Long said the agency is working with the island on planning and training exercises in order to prepare residents for the next storm. The next hurricane season starts on June 1.
— Shell's climate game: Dutch journalist Jelmer Mommers, a reporter with De Correspondent in Amsterdam, has uncovered Royal Dutch Shell documents dating back as far as 1988 showing the oil company understood the threat climate change posed to the planet. Among the revelations was a 1988 report titled “The Greenhouse Effect” calculating that Shell alone was contributing 4 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions. “By the time global warming becomes detectable it could be too late to take effective countermeasures to reduce the effects or even to stabilize the situation,” the report warned.
The findings echoes similar documents from the 1970s and '80s uncovered in investigative reports in InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times regarding one of Shell's biggest rivals, ExxonMobil. The new documents could end up playing a role in lawsuits brought by New York City and other governments against Shell and its competitors for their contributions to sea-level rise and other climate effects.
— Let it shutter: A new analysis from Moody’s suggests the planned closure of three nuclear plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania run by FirstEnergy would be good for other electricity generators in the region because it "likely will raise" prices in capacity auctions next May. FirstEnergy has asked the Energy Department to use its emergency powers to keep the plants open after, as Moody's put it, “repeated efforts to gain state-sponsored financial support in the past two years have failed.”
But so far, Trump has hinted he will not follow Moody's advice. “We’ll be looking at” an emergency declaration, Trump said Thursday. “We’re trying. We’ll be looking at that as soon as we get back.”
— Solar saturation: Solar power made up more than a third of all electricity produced from energy sources that came online last year, according to the United Nations Environment Program report released late last week, more than any other new energy source. “But even as solar and its renewable energy cousins — like wind, biomass and geothermal power; but not counting big hydropower projects — expand, they still account for barely 12 percent of all the electricity that the world consumes,” the New York Times reports. “The greatest share still comes from fossil fuels like coal, and more coal-fired power plants continue to be built."
- Bloomberg New Energy Finance holds the Future of Energy Global Summit.
- The Independent Petroleum Association of America holds the 24th annual Oil & Gas Investment Symposium.
- S&P Global Platts hosts the 33rd annual Global Power Markets Conference starting Tuesday.
- The Atlantic Council holds an event on Tuesday.
- Securing America's Future Energy holds an event on fuel economy and energy security on Tuesday.
- The Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety holds a hearing on “Cooperative Federalism Under the Clean Air Act” on Tuesday.
- The Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service holds an energy and climate policy research seminar on Tuesday.
- The Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy holds a book talk on “Renewables: The Politics of a Global Energy Transition” on Wednesday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands holds a legislative hearing on Wednesday.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations holds a hearing on an update on Puerto Rico’s electric infrastructure on Wednesday.
- The House Natural Resources Committee holds a markup on Wednesday.
- The World Resources Institute and the National Geographic Society host an event on data, technology, media and human networks and natural resources on Wednesday.
- The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing on Wednesday.
- Energy Secretary Rick Perry will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy on the department’s 2019 budget on Thursday.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold an oversight hearing titled “The Benefits of the Navajo Generating Station to Local Economies” on Thursday.
— “It was at my door about two or three times:” A wildlife photographer called the police after he saw a raccoon stand up on its hind feet and flash its sharp teeth. Some Youngstown, Ohio residents have likened the animals, likely infested with a disease called distemper, to zombies.