By the time you read this sentence, Scott Pruitt might be gone as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (or he might be Attorney General; stay tuned!).
The man who the New York Times’ Gail Collins anointed the Worst Member of the Trump Administration is now more famous for his ethically-challenged management of the Agency – from his sweetheart condo deal to his legally suspect staff pay raises to his lavish office furnishings to his abuse of his security detail in the service of grantinee a l’oignon – than for the policies he’s tried to implement.
Should Pruitt get the axe, there’s no doubt the environmental community will rejoice. Pruitt made a name for himself as Oklahoma attorney general by suing the very agency he now leads. His fervent opposition to EPA’s core mission of protecting the environment was clear from the start. And in his time at the helm, he’s overseen the gutting of numerous rules designed to keep the air and water clean (not to mention his successful campaign to get President Trump to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accords).
The reality is that Scott Pruitt has been a remarkably effective political appointee – perhaps the most successful high-level Trump pick, measured by the extent to which he has fulfilled Trump’s campaign promises. Even as scandal has swirled around him, Pruitt is hard at work pulling back fuel mileage standards for cars and trucks, threatening Clean Water Act regulations, and rescinding Obama’s climate change-fighting Clean Power Plan.
No wonder that a lot of folks who oppose his policies would likely breathe a sigh of relief at his departure. But make no mistake: Scott Pruitt is not the reason the Trump administration has been a boon to polluters. It all starts at the top.
Remember that Donald Trump himself made antagonism towards the environment one of his core campaign features, from his longstanding belief that climate change is a Chinese hoax to his vow to revive the coal industry. Scott Pruitt may be a particularly effective foot soldier in Trump’s war on environmental protections, but he’s far from the only one.
Even if Pruitt goes, the others remain, including Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who is determined to bail out the coal industry at any cost; and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who is a one-man natural resources wrecking crew. And let’s be honest: it’s not likely that Donald Trump would select a committed environmentalist as his next EPA head should Pruitt go. There are plenty of mini-Scotts ready to take the battle to the planet.
True, a less skilled politico than Scott Pruitt may have a harder time in getting his or her way on rolling back environmental policies. But those skills simply aren’t as necessary anymore, as the President purges his inner circle of anyone who tries to moderate his policy whims. Consider that when Scott Pruitt was lobbying Trump to exit the Paris accords, he was going up against, among others, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn.
Both are now gone, and it’s a safe bet to say that their respective successors, Mike Pompeo and Larry Kudlow, would be more likely to agree with Pruitt. In fact, most of the policy guardrails are gone, leaving an administration of appointees who’ve learned that catering to Trump’s extreme whims is the fastest ticket to job security. Should Pruitt leave, the next EPA Administrator will likely find that accelerating Pruitt’s work is the best way to stay on Donald Trump’s good side.
In fact, the newt EPA administrator will face a pretty low bar on a host of fronts. So long as he or she doesn’t turn on the sirens every time they get a craving for escargot and opts for slightly less expensive office decor, they will come off as an improvement over Pruitt, giving them more leeway to pursue Trump’s agenda out of the spotlight.
Ultimately, that is the biggest reason why Pruitt’s possible departure won’t mean a brighter future for environmental protection: so long as the chaos emanating from the administration on everything from Russia to Stormy Daniels to the border wall sucks up attention, the real work of dismantling the environmental safety net that took half a century to build can move ahead in the dark.
Scott Pruitt may soon be gone, but his legacy will live on.
Photo: Gage Skidmore