Updated: Aug 7, 2019
This column was originally published at TheHill.com on April 4, 2018.
In Washington, it’s hard to have a week as bad as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. And for the town that inspired “House of Cards,” that says a lot. Of the many news stories questioning his ethics and shifting explanations, the most notable revelation was that he has literally been sleeping in the bed of industry lobbyists, with a sweetheart condo deal of $50 per night for him and his family in the expensive heart of Capitol Hill. Even Republicans are ditching him, with two GOP members of Congress calling for his ouster, and Republican strategist Steve Schmidt tweeted that Pruitt is “a grifter and an ethical superfund site.”
White House reporters note that it is hard to find anyone to defend Pruitt. When asked about his confidence in Pruitt, Trump responded ”I hope he is going to be great,” which sounds like the words of encouragement you give your kids before a game despite knowing they are about to get squashed.
Some, however, speculate that he is protected because he is doing exactly what the president wants him to do. Is that true? Probably not.
Pruitt has consistently been the weakest member of Trump’s cabinet where it matters most to Trump: public opinion. According to March polling by Gallup, public views of Trump’s handling of the environment is underwater at just 31 percent approval, well below Trump’s overall approval rating of 39 percent. Why? Because Scott Pruitt is tone deaf to the views of the vast majority of Americans who favor strong public health protections and understand that environmental protection and economic growth can go hand in hand.
Former governor Chris Christie got it right when he declared on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday that Pruitt “should never have been there in the first place.” Prior to his nomination, Pruitt has seemingly built his public service career to benefit energy lobbyists who regularly contributed to his political ambitions and first-class lifestyle.
When it comes to Pruitt’s inherent weaknesses, alarm bells should have rung at the White House in April, 2017, when he was attacked on Breitbart, whose White House stock was still high at the time. James Delingpole, a Breitbart writer and cheerleader of Trump’s EPA agenda, criticized Pruittfor getting “eaten alive” by Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday as Wallace pressed him about public health and climate change. Pruitt “can’t even answer a few basic and obvious questions,” wrote Delingpole. “It’s an embarrassment and a shambles. Worst of all, it’s an entirely needless concession to the enemy.”
In the coming months, Pruitt successfully lobbied Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Pruitt sold the White House on an economic message that simply never reverberated with voters. When the dust settled from Pruitt’s media tour, only 28 percent of voters supportedTrump’s decision. To avoid further unforced errors from Pruitt, the White House later shut down his “red team versus blue team” proposal to challenge whether fossil fuel pollution is the driving force behind climate change.
Pruitt’s weakness extends beyond public opinion. Congress firmly rejected Pruitt’s effort to sell Trump’s massive budget cuts to EPA. In fact, they increased funding to EPA in the recent budget deal.
Pruitt is a consistent loser in the courts, which may seem odd given his experience as attorney general for Oklahoma. But at the time of his nomination, Pruitt had lost six of the seven lawsuits he filed against EPA that had been ruled on by the courts. Lisa Heinzerling, Professor of Law at Georgetown University, writes that Pruitt’s repeated losses on attempts to reverse or delay rules on lead paint, methane emissions from oil and gas facilities, and other matters are the result of “elementary legal mistakes.” Pruitt has eagerly pursued his anti-regulatory agenda by press release rather than sound legal and analytical work, leaving most of his actions vulnerable to court reversal whether he stays or go.
If Pruitt thinks he is protected because he is doing Trump’s bidding, it is only because he lacks self-awareness of the problems his weakness causes the White House. To underscore the degree to which Pruitt operates in a sound-proofed bubble, he responded to this week’s news by saying he is “dumbfounded” that renting a condo from top energy lobbyists is controversial.
Whether Pruitt stays or goes is anyone’s guess, but the long-term prospects are dim for Pruitt. The mid-term elections loom, bringing with them the potential for long-overdue congressional oversight. In the meantime, as the White House frets, Pruitt has become the main meal for political pundits and media that devour weakness in Washington.