Bye, Scott. Is Donald Next?
In December 2016, just a month after winning the presidency, Donald Trump appointed former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is arguably the most important federal government agency, setting standards for public safety for air and water pollution, climate change and more. So the decision to have Pruitt lead the EPA was an offense to the agency’s mandate, since he had led a crusade against the EPA, particularly its climate agenda, during the Barack Obama years.
As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt had filed a whopping 14 lawsuits over regulatory safeguards put in place by the agency he would later be tasked to lead. Ken Cook, a spokesperson for the Environmental Working Group, told The New York Times, “It’s a safe assumption that Pruitt could be the most hostile EPA administrator toward clean air and safe drinking water in history.” In retrospect, Cook was spot on. While the EPA released a sanitized list of Pruitt’s accomplishments a year into his tenure, environmental groups and journalists offered a more honest assessment. Mother Jones compiled a terrifying list of the damage Pruitt did to protections of Americans from toxic pollutants and more.
Just as a minority of frustrated and/or ill-informed Americans gave Trump permission to run roughshod over the Constitution and government as a whole, Trump’s appointment of Pruitt to the EPA was likewise aimed at destroying the institution from within. And Pruitt got devastatingly far.
Once lodged at the EPA, Pruitt also proceeded to turn the agency into a cash cow for himself and his family. Remember the infamous $43,000 private phone booth in his office, the fishy, cheap condo rental from a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., the hefty pay raises for aides about which he lied, the abuse of his position to try to get his wife a high-paying job, and the tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars he spent flying first class. Journalists have said they’ve “lost count” of the scandals.
This past May, the Sierra Club obtained tens of thousands of internal documents through the Freedom of Information Act showing so much rampant corruption at the EPA under Pruitt that the organization’s executive director, Michael Brune, concluded, “Scott Pruitt doesn’t live in the swamp—he is the swamp—and he should resign, or be fired immediately.” The ethics violations were so blatant and numerous that no agency head, whether a climate denialist like Pruitt or a strict proponent of environmental standards, should have been able to get away with them. Perhaps it was the mother who recently confronted Pruitt at a restaurant that provided the straw that broke the camel’s back, shaming the EPA head into heeding her advice and resigning.
In the end, it wasn’t Pruitt’s actual EPA-related actions that ruined him, but the fact that he let corruption and scandal loom large in the public imagination and made Republicans look bad. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, released a statement saying, “It has become increasingly challenging for the EPA to carry out its mission with the administrator under investigation.”
If the appearance of scandal is what impeded Pruitt’s work in the eyes of Republicans, then it is only natural to extend that standard to the president, who has been mired in one questionable situation after another from the moment he began his campaign. “The controversies surrounding the former administrator of @EPA had become a major impediment & necessitated a leadership change,” tweeted Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Reread that same sentence with Trump in mind, and it should be clear why the end of Pruitt’s political career should mark the beginning of the end of Trump’s tenure.
Not only is the president under a major investigation himself, he remains mired in corruption and repeated questions about the use of his office for personal gain. On the website corporatepresidency.org, the group Public Citizen details the endless scandals surrounding Trump and details how he and his family have enriched themselves with clients currying favor by patronizing his businesses, his rewarding of donors and business partners, and deregulations that benefit Trump’s corporate friends and his own businesses. Trump’s list of wrongdoings, like those of Pruitt, is exhausting and endless.
Just as Pruitt’s position on the climate and regulations were the more compelling reasons for his stepping down, Trump’s deep disdain for the Constitution and his deliberate lack of understanding of the president’s powers ought to be the basis for his resignation or impeachment. But if it takes shining a light on ethics violations to achieve the same end, so be it.
Or perhaps the ethics violations by Pruitt and Trump and the deliberate destruction of the institutions they are meant to lead are two sides of the same coin. The hubris with which Pruitt approached his responsibilities at the EPA is linked to his abuse of power. The same is true for Trump, who walked into the presidency assuming he could run it as he has run his businesses—with false bravado, a blowing up of expectations and norms, taking wild risks and, most importantly, acting in his own personal interest.
The appointment of Pruitt to lead the EPA should be added to the list of Trump’s misdeeds. Many of us remember watching with horror the parade of one ill-equipped, inexperienced and inappropriate Cabinet members after another in the last two years that predictably threw various government institutions into disarray. The responsibility for hiring figures that have left in disgrace, including Steve Bannon, Gary Cohn, Anthony Scaramucci and Rex Tillerson, and those who remain today, such as Stephen Miller and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, lies with Trump. If Pruitt and the rest were unsuitable for government, it is because Trump himself is the worst possible person for his job.
Republicans and Democrats seem to be in agreement about Pruitt’s resignation being good for the country. If so, surely they can agree on the resignation of the position that has far greater impact on us, namely the presidency. Pruitt’s downfall ought to be the most compelling case study for Trump’s own political end.