This post has been updated.
The business of politics is often a cost-benefit analysis, if not outright gambling. People have a certain amount of political capital, comprising their base of support and internal favors, and they get to choose when and where to spend it — with no telling how their decisions will pan out or how much of a return, if any, they will reap.
Scott Pruitt was both a bad business decision and a horrible political gamble. Yet the White House kept throwing good money after bad on that bet. As indictments of Trump's political decisions and acumen go, Pruitt ranks extremely high.
Put plainly: The White House for some reason thought this might get better, even as it was pretty clear to everyone outside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. that Pruitt’s blatant indifference to ethical concerns ensured that it never would.
The White House finally cashed out what remained of its chips Thursday afternoon. President Trump announced that Pruitt had resigned as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, after months of scandal and more than a dozen investigations. The scandal was remarkable both for the scope of ethical violations and the White House's puzzling decision to draw out the string.
Indeed, to call it a “scandal” actually misses this point. It was a series of scandals, all united by a common theme: indifference to ethics. And the scandals showed no signs of abating. New developments in the past week included Pruitt’s own allies and top staffers testifying to ethically murky behavior, and shortly before Trump’s announcement on Thursday, the New York Times ran an on-the-record interview with a scheduler who said she was fired shortly after suggesting that staffers might have been illegally altering Pruitt’s official calendars.
There was also, of course, the first-class travel Pruitt insisted he needed for security reasons, even as the EPA failed to document any real need. There was the $43,000 soundproof phone booth he had installed. There was the $50-per night apartment rental from the wife of an energy lobbyist. And there were the explanations Pruitt offered personally that seemed to run counter to the facts.
The apartment rental story was the canary in the coal mine. How an EPA administrator would think it was a good idea to rent at such a reduced rate from a family with clear business interests in his agency betrayed complete cluelessness about or apathy toward ethics rules and the damage he was doing to himself. Even if you accept that Pruitt was trying to save a few bucks, why on earth would you put your career at risk like that — especially given that some people had you pegged for the next attorney general of the United States?
A guy who makes a decision that was so obviously problematic was bound to make many other bad ones. And news of those bad decisions just kept coming out. So with no end in sight, the White House appears to have decided to cut bait — or more accurately, to dumbfoundingly wait three months and then cut bait.