In the quagmire that is the swamp of the Donald Trump administration and Cabinet, one name stands above—or should that be below?—all the rest: Scott Pruitt.
A new scandal about the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency emerges almost daily. If you miss one, don’t worry—there will be a new one out the next day with some other piece of corrupt malfeasance, whether it’s a shady deal, a lavish taxpayer-funded trip, or undue influence by fossil fuel lobbyists.
The latest scandal involves Pruitt’s desire to be a world traveler without paying for it himself. He asked aides to rustle up reasons for him to visit multiple countries, ostensibly for environmental reasons but really so Pruitt could push the U.S. business interests of influential outsiders. At least a dozen nations were on his travel bucket list on six continents—guess there’s no profit with penguins. Never mind that the guy who is supposed to be in charge of protecting the U.S. environment has no business visiting a new country every month to peddle liquefied natural gas or water purification products. But lobbyists, Republican donors, and conservative activists all had a hand in shaping his travel schedule until even he was too embarrassed to continue on the Pruitt world tour.
Pruitt is facing at least 10 federal ethics investigations by congressional committees, the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, the EPA Office of Inspector General, the White House Office of Management and Budget, and the Government Accountability Office. Requests for such probes have come from both Democratic lawmakers and members of the general public through an EPA OIG hotline.
It goes without saying that this kind of behavior would never be tolerated in a Democratic administration. Republican lawmakers and Fox News pundits would be fighting each other to see who could scream the loudest with demands for resignations, firings, and more.
In a normal presidency, any of Pruitt’s numerous scandals would be enough to earn him a swift kick out the door or a statement that the EPA chief wanted to spend more time with his family. So it’s time once again to ask: Why does Scott Pruitt still have a job?
Steve Benen, who writes much of the content at the Maddow Blog for MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, compiled a “baker’s dozen” of Pruitt scandals, from his $43,000 soundproof phone booth to his 24/7 security crew to his insistence on first-class airline travel. But that list was incomplete within days and needed updating, mainly to include more details about the $100,000 trip to Morocco to “sell U.S. natural gas,” a trip arranged by a lobbyist who quickly became an agent for the Moroccan government. Here are both of Benen’s lists in convenient abbreviated form—all credit goes to the Maddow Blog for this succinct and handy scandal roundup.
- The EPA’s inspector general is investigating Pruitt’s controversial travel habits.
- The House Oversight Committee is also exploring the EPA chief’s use of public funds for first-class travel.
- The EPA’s inspector general is investigating Pruitt’s behind-the-scenes talks with the National Mining Association.
- Pruitt’s exorbitant spending on an around-the-clock security detail is the subject of three inspector general investigations.
- The House Oversight Committee is also examining the EPA chief’s security expenditures.
- The Government Accountability Office has already investigated Pruitt for exceeding federal spending limits when he bought a $43,000 phone booth for his office.
- The White House Office of Management and Budget is also investigating the phone booth.
- The EPA’s inspector general is investigating Pruitt’s use of funds set aside for the Safe Drinking Water Act and diverting the money to give generous raises to two of his top aides.
- The EPA’s inspector general is investigating Pruitt’s four-day trip to Morocco late last year.
- The Government Accountability Office is investigating Pruitt’s ouster of scientists from the EPA’s science advisory committee.
- The Government Accountability Office is investigating whether Pruitt broke lobbying laws with comments he made to the National Cattleman’s Beef Association.
- The House Oversight Committee is investigating Pruitt’s living arrangement at a lobbyist’s condo.
- And as noted above, the EPA’s inspector general is now also taking a closer look at Pruitt’s time at that condo.
And the new list of charges:
- Pruitt has been accused of lying to Congress while giving testimony under oath.
- Pruitt appears to have done a highly lucrative favor for a major Trump supporter who helped Pruitt get his job.
- Two of Pruitt’s top aides abruptly resigned.
- The Associated Press reported that the lobbyist whose wife rented a condo to Pruitt for $50 a night “sought EPA committee posts for a lobbying client, according to a newly released EPA memo.”
- The Washington Post reported that Richard Smotkin, a former Comcast lobbyist and longtime Pruitt associate, helped arrange Pruitt’s controversial and trip to Morocco last year. Taxpayers ended up paying for the trip, which Pruitt took for reasons that the EPA has struggled to explain.
- The New York Times reported that a former lobbyist for foreign governments played a central role in attempting to set up a trip for Pruitt to Australia, and then “took steps to disguise his role.”
- Taking Points Memo reported that in early 2017, after Pruitt took the reins at the EPA, he “directed his future chief of staff to explore the creation of an EPA office in Pruitt’s hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, even though an EPA office with authority over Oklahoma already existed in Dallas, Texas.”
All of this is enough for a person to develop “Scott Pruitt fatigue,” as a recent Vanity Fair story suggested. So let’s look as some possible reasons why this swamp monster still has a seat at the Cabinet table.
Fleecing the taxpayer is a way of life in Trumpland. Private and military jets, first-class travel, expensive furniture, and campaign trips masquerading as official business are all SOP in the Trump administration. The presence of graft and grime is seen as a feature, not a bug. When the majority of Cabinet secretaries are flying high on the taxpayers’ dime, questionable travel expenses mean nothing. After all, the biggest money-waster is Trump himself with his regular golfing trips: In 2017 alone, trips to Mar-a-Lago in Florida and to his Trump property in Bedminster, New Jersey, cost taxpayers more than $13 million.
Pruitt strokes Trump’s ego—bigly. The most effective way to stay in Trump’s good graces is to lavish praise on the president, and the Cabinet members who are still around keep delivering. All good news must be attributed to Trump; all bad news must have been Barack Obama’s fault. “This president has shown tremendous courage to say to the American people that America is going to be put first,” Pruitt said in an April news conference in which he announced a rollback of auto-efficiency standards.
All of Pruitt’s actions are pro-fossil fuel and anti-environment. According to a story at Vox, the EPA launched 16 deregulatory actions in 2017, more than any other federal agency. Instead of protecting the environment, all of those actions went toward loosening regulations on coal, oil, and gas, while fossil fuel industries cheered from the sidelines. As a Mother Jones story pointed out, most of the EPA’s deregulatory actions and planned initiatives match up with specific industry requests, “ranging from air-pollution limits for oil and gas operations to water-pollution restrictions on coal-fired power plants.” The saving grace for the rest of us is that much of the deregulation has been done in a sloppy manner and is being challenged in court by states and environmental groups. Launching a deregulation is not the same as an actual deregulation, as federal rules take a long time to rewrite.
Pruitt is doing his best to help undo Obama’s legacy. It’s not enough for Trump just to push deregulation for fossil fuel industries. That must be coupled with undoing some of Obama’s successes, and no area is being pinpointed more than the advances Obama made on climate change and the environment. That’s another way that Pruitt stays in Trump’s good graces—by reversing whatever Obama tried to do. Vox described Pruitt as “the happy conductor of the Trump train.”
Pruitt is fulfilling long-held Republican dreams. Just as many Republicans are willing to ignore Trump’s lies, moral failings, and disregard for the law (not to mention human decency), they’re willing to give Pruitt a pass as long as he’s getting rid of regulations and giving big donors like fossil fuel industries a chance to make more money. Although some in the GOP are alarmed about Pruitt’s ethical failings, many others just shrug off the charges as “nitpicking.”
The Three Stooges Syndrome. Steve Benen has a new theory of how Pruitt’s getting away with so much corruption. He takes it from an episode of The Simpsons, explained by the “Three Stooges Syndrome.”
In the episode, C. Montgomery Burns goes to a doctor’s office, and the physician tells him he’s “the sickest man in the United States.” The doctor adds, “You have everything,” including “several diseases that have just been discovered.”
When Burns, disheartened, says that the prognosis sounds like bad news, the physician says, “Well, you’d think so, but all of your diseases are in perfect balance.” He tells the plutocrat about what he calls the “Three Stooges Syndrome,” in which no one ailment can doom Burns because they’re all trying to break through an open doorway simultaneously.
When Moe, Larry, and Curly all tried to exit a door at the same time, they inevitably would bump into each other, so none could actually make it out the door. In other words, there’s so much wrong about Pruitt that one scandal can’t rise above another.
But the worst part of the Scott Pruitt scandal roundup is this: All of Pruitt’s scandals pale in comparison to the damage he’s trying to inflict on the planet.