Then everything went sideways. Here’s how Trump continued.
“I want clean air. I want clean water. I want the cleanest air, want the cleanest water. The environment is very important to me."
“Somebody wrote a book that I’m an environmentalist and actually called, ‘The Environmentalist’, actually, before I did this. But they wrote a book. I’d like to get it. I have it in the other office. I’ll bring it to my next news conference, perhaps. I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to see it. I’m sure you’ll report all about it.”
“But no, I’m a big believer in that word: the environment. I’m a big believer. But I want clean air. I want clean water. And I also want jobs, though. I want I don’t want to close up our industry because somebody said, you know, you have to go with wind or you have to go with something else that’s not going to be able to have the capacity to do what we have to do. We have the best employment numbers we’ve ever had. We have the best unemployment numbers we’ve ever had. So that’s very important.”
It’s worth breaking that down, line by line.
“I want clean air. I want clean water. I want the cleanest air, want the cleanest water. The environment is very important to me.” Okay, fine. We’ve heard this before; Trump often talks about “the environment” in terms of clean air and water, as though he’s a 1974 public-service announcement airing on your local CBS affiliate. Global warming is only about “clean air” in the sense that warming is caused by the unchecked release of gases like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, and it’s only about “clean water” in the sense that increased saturation of carbon dioxide in ocean water is making that water more acidic. But there’s absolutely no reason to assume that this is the context in which Trump’s using that phrasing.
He used to understand that there was a distinction between climate change and clean air. That the line has now been erased.
We should assume that — willingly or accidentally — he’s simply moving the argument into safer political territory. Since many of those whose experience with the environmental movement predates the emergence of climate change as an issue probably similarly understand “caring for the environment” as “not dumping tires in lakes,” he’s simply pivoting from something on which his record is nonexistent to something on which his record is merely bad. He’s done nothing on climate change but move backward; he has, at least, talked about clean air and water.
He has also championed policy and regulatory changes that would loosen existing air and water protections. There’s voluminous documentation of these changes. And while he has, at times, claimed that America’s air and water are the cleanest in the world, they aren’t — and things may be worsening.
“Somebody wrote a book that I’m an environmentalist … I’m sure you’ll report all about it.” If this book exists, Google isn’t aware of it.
Update: The book has been identified. It is “Donald J. Trump: An Environmental Hero,” written by Edward Russo — a long-time employee of the Trump Organization — in 2016.
Trump’s made this claim before, that he’s a champion of the environment. Here, for example, is what he said in November when asked about the tension between risk and championing business, particularly in the context of climate change.
“Well, you know, climate change is a very complex issue. I consider myself to be, in many ways, an environmentalist, believe it or not,” he said. “When I build buildings, I did the best environmental impact statements. I was — You know, I know the game better than anybody.”
That’s an impressively bad pivot. He’s an environmentalist … because he completed “the best” environmental impact reports?
Environmental impact reports, or EIRs, are governmentally mandated assessments of the possible environmental effects of a building or construction project. The state of New York, where most of Trump’s construction projects were completed, requires EIRs under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. That Trump completed mandated reports on the possible impacts of his buildings qualifies him, in his view, as an environmentalist.
Now the kicker. The White House event Thursday where Trump was renewing his claim to being an environmentalist? It was focused on scaling back the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, which, among other things, mandates environmental reviews for federal projects.
Under President Barack Obama, that mandate had been expanded to include new attention to the effects on climate change. Trump, while claiming to be an environmentalist, wants to loosen environmental rules similar to those which, in another context, he used to tout his own environmentalism.
“I’m a big believer in that word: the environment. I’m a big believer. But I want clean air. I want clean water. And I also want jobs, though. I want I don’t want to close up our industry because somebody said, you know, you have to go with wind.” This is the heart of the tension Trump was asked about in November. Where is the line drawn between the need to ensure that American jobs are preserved — or, at least, preserving corporate profits — and between curtailing the effects of global warming?
This is a real debate, and one which bears actual risks for American politicians. Democrats eager to address the warming climate are asked to explain what then happens to coal miners whose product becomes anathema. Hillary Clinton’s fumbling treatment of this question in the 2016 campaign did her no favors in places like western Pennsylvania.
Trump, despite his talk about clean air, has given no indication at all that he’s particularly interested in giving much weight to any consideration besides jobs and profit margins. Every time his administration rolls back another set of rules or regulations, the framing is the same: It’s important for the economy.
The White House document defending the particular rollback Trump announced Thursday focused on that point, too: “The President is delivering on his promise to transform our government and reform regulations to work for the American people."
So Trump is an environmentalist who conflates climate change with the need for clean water and air — which he has separately undermined — and we know he’s an environmentalist both because an employee identified him as such in a book and because he completed the sorts of government mandated environmental reviews which he scaled back during the event in which he again declared himself to be an environmentalist.