Question: Which of these scandals should result in EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s removal from office?
- A) his cushy, poorly documented, below-market rental deal on a lobbyist friend's Capitol Hill townhouse;
- B) his extensive use of first-class air travel (to Europe, among other places), purportedly to avoid “vulgar” interactions with the lowly citizenry;
- C) his extravagant $43,000 soundproof phone booth, seemingly inspired by the “Cone of Silence” in television’s “Get Smart” series;
- D) his overspending on personal security, and then lying about it;
- E) his dinner at 5-star restaurant with a Roman Catholic cardinal who doesn’t believe in climate change and was under investigation for child abuse; or,
- F) his misuse of the Safe Drinking Water Act to give two aides massive raises, bypassing White oversight.
Answer: None of the above.
Yes, Pruitt seems to be a terrible, self-centered person, who spares no expense on himself as long as someone else foots the bill. But the real reason Scott Pruitt should be removed from office is because he is causing lasting harm to current and future generations.
Scott Pruitt abuses the public trust by using his position to serve the Koch brothers and other fossil-fuel magnates, and he is killing us and our kids in the bargain.
The Real Corruption
This is the first in a series of Trump administration profiles, each of which is based on a simple premise: While many White House officials are personally deplorable, and some may prove to be personally corrupt, the real corruption isn’t who they are. It’s what they do.
The policies they carry out are more cynical – and far more destructive – than any of their self-serving deeds and depravities.
Pruitt is an excellent case in point. The energy industry lavishly funded his campaigns for Attorney General of Oklahoma, even when he ran unopposed. The Koch brothers have been especially generous to Pruitt, and invested heavily in lobbying for Pruitt’s confirmation as EPA head.
They invested well, if not ethically. Pruitt was the ideal Attorney General in his state for the fossil-fuel industry, suing the EPA 14 times for doing its job.
Pruitt's emails, which were revealed after a suit from the Center for Media and Democracy, expose his coziness and collusion with the fossil-fuel industry. He has insisted that climate change is a “hoax,” despite the overwhelming scientific consensus in its favor. And he has been an enormously destructive EPA administrator, gutting rules, budgets, and staff alike.
“Norms” Aren’t Normal
That’s why efforts to target his personal lapses, like a recent one from Democratic senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee, will fail to move the needle politically.
For most Americans, this kind of talk about ethics is little more than static in the background of their noisy lives. If anything, it reinforces their cynicism about government, and won’t change many votes.
Even if efforts to force Pruitt to step down succeed, he is likely to be replaced by an equally destructive administrator, whose defects of character are only less conspicuous.
Then what? For too many politicians, the goal is a return to “norms” of bipartisan civility. "It's not just concerning to Democrats, it’s also (troubling) to a lot of Republicans,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE). “And maybe sooner rather than later they'll find their voices."
But those are the norms that have made it acceptable to act against the public interest, selling our lives and our planet to the highest bidder, as long as insiders don’t talk rudely or stick their fingers too deeply into the public till. Republicans aren’t likely to “find their voices” against any Trump nominee. They certainly won’t “find their voices” against the Koch brothers and the exploitation of the environment, because those are policies they support.
And that’s where the real corruption lies.
Robert Redford got it right in a recent op-ed. Redford lists Pruitt’s many misdeeds, from his attacks on climate science to his delaying or easing of standards on everything from auto fuel standards to the discharging of mercury, lead, and arsenic into our air, land, and water.
Groups like “Boot Pruitt” get it right, too, by listing Pruitt’s administrative misdeeds along with his personal corruption.
Tell ‘Em Ronnie Sent You
It was inevitable that Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of moneyed interests from politics would turn out to be a lie. He has put virtually every branch of government in the hands of the industries that want to exploit them. But that’s not a Trump invention; it’s a Republican habit.
Ronald Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch to run the EPA, and her tenure there was arguably as bad as Pruitt’s. Like Pruitt, she slashed the budget, clashed with career employees, cut regulations, and appointed industry insiders to oversee their friends and colleagues. (Gorsuch was the mother of Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court appointee.)
That’s why Pruitt’s opponents – a group that should include everyone who loves the earth, or future generations – should focus more on what he’s doing, and what his party is doing.
Killing Us, Not So Softly
Here’s the latest, real-life Pruitt scandal: Working with White House officials, Pruitt’s aides suppressed a study showing that certain chemicals in the water supply were harmful at much lower levels than had previously been believed. These chemicals are used to make Teflon, firefighting foam, and other products.
The harms caused by the presence of these chemicals in drinking water, according to the study, are increased incidence of pregnancy problems, thyroid disease, and cancers.
An unnamed White House official said the study would be “a public relations nightmare” for the administration, a statement that is only true if the administration plans to ignore the problem. It’s clear that “nothing” is exactly what this administration’s environmental team, led by Scott Pruitt, intends to do.
Environmental pollution kills. It increases the frequency and severity of chronic disease, which causes 4 out of 5 American deaths each year. Air pollution alone kills between 155,000 and 200,000 Americans per year. Even at the lower estimate, that’s more than five times as many people who died on 9/11.
This may just be a semantic difference, but if Robert Redford gets anything wrong, it’s when he describes Pruitt as a “one-man public-health risk to the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.”
Pruitt isn’t acting alone. He’s not a “one-man” anything. Pruitt is working hand-in-hand with the president, his party, and the industry tycoons who have subsidized his career. Scott Pruitt may or may not stay in his current position. But the real corruption– a corruption that is literally killing us – will be around for a long time to come, unless the American people demand that it stop.