Scott Pruitt will be on Capitol Hill today for what should be the latest in his series of verbal floggings. Weeks after testifying before two House committees, the EPA administrator will speak to the Senate Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee.
Amid questions about his misconduct in office, Pruitt is expected to discuss President Trump’s 2019 budget plan for the agency he has worked to undermine from the moment he took the job. Truth be told, Pruitt has no business leading the EPA and should have been fired months ago, complete with career epitaphs published in every major media outlet. Any decent president would have made him a political memory by now.
The most ostensible reason, of course, is Pruitt’s penchant for professional scandal. His naked exhibitions of corruption are so plentiful now that they become forgettable. From tourism on the taxpayer dollar to living on the cheap in a condo owned by an energy lobbyist's wife to hiring disgraced friends who financed him during his days in Oklahoma, Pruitt has behaved in the job like an irresponsible teenager with a gold card. I didn’t even bring up the sirens, the emails and the secret phone booth. Even in a Cabinet full of grifters and charlatans, Pruitt is a man apart.
Yet, he remains employed.
There are several theories as to why, many based in Republican reluctance to hold him accountable. The Oversight committee is investigating his agency, but with Trey Gowdy in charge, I expect a fraction of the sound and fury that Gowdy gave us over Benghazi. Scandals, as Trump has proved, become a bit easier to deflect when chaos is part of your brand. The Republican reluctance to punish anyone in this administration with more than a few cursory sound bites certainly makes it difficult to dream of accountability. Besides, we're too caught up in the Pruitt spectacle to zero in on the real reason why he needs to go.
On Monday, Politico reported that Pruitt and Trump’s aides worked together to suppress a federal report about the toxicity of water supplies. The study being prepared by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of Health and Human Services, apparently would indicate that "a class of toxic chemicals that has contaminated water supplies near military bases, chemical plants and other sites from New York to Michigan to West Virginia" would "endanger human health at a far lower level than EPA has previously called safe." I say apparently, because three months after warnings from an Office of Management and Budget aide that this would be a "public-relations nightmare," the HHS assessment remains unpublished and has no scheduled release date.
Now, that’s a scandal, ri—wait, what is that? Another report about Pruitt’s weirdly massive, $3 million-and-counting security detail? Hours after the Politico story broke, the Washington Post reported that Pruitt began receiving round-the-clock protection from the day he took the EPA job. That contradicts what he has claimed in the past – that a Trump appointee – Don Benton, a former Washington State senator only requested Pruitt’s Secret Service-y protection after receiving "threats," which I put in quotes because he may have lied about that, too. The story took off, producing aggregation and chatter that subsumed talk about that boring toxicity report that Pruitt and his people allegedly worked with the White House to bury. Cool it with the nerd stuff, guys; we have a reality show to watch.
That story is important, as the public should know when officials like Pruitt decide to spend our money on silly, self-aggrandizing nonsense like this. That said, the scandals serve to obfuscate the Occam’s Razor of reasons to can Pruitt: He leads the Environmental Protection Agency, and he is vandalizing the environment that Americans need to live in. Ensuring the continued survival of humanity on this planet may sound like a grandiose way to encapsulate Pruitt’s job, but is that not the goal? Whether or not people give much of a damn about the Earth or climate change, I would imagine that they care about not being poisoned by their water supply.
In that respect, Pruitt is also a hypocrite. Once accused of stalling prosecutions of polluters as Oklahoma’s attorney general, the EPA administrator promised in March of last year to make clean water a priority and to push for funding to prevent another Flint. "We know when it goes wrong, it goes wrong badly," Pruitt said then. "We have a water infrastructure issue right now across this country. It’s not just roads and bridges." To the EPA’s credit, that funding has begun to show up. In April, it announced both millions in loans and leveraged funding for water infrastructure projects in New York state and a $2 million grant to a lead water research team led by Virginia Tech’s Marc Edwards, who first uncovered the elevated lead levels in Flint’s water supply.
Also, in April, Pruitt announced a new regulation that would "restrict the kinds of scientific studies the agency can use when it develops policies," according to the New York Times. Funding research and infrastructure is one thing. But what happens when Edwards and his team present findings inconsistent with the corporate polluter agenda that Pruitt seems to be following? Will he suppress those, too? As The New Republic’s Emily Atkin recently noted, Pruitt’s anti-environmentalist agenda isn’t bearing nearly as much fruit as Trump thinks, but Pruitt’s incompetence and deception are cause enough for Americans to be alarmed. The scandals have obscured both Pruitt’s lack of accomplishment – one so stark that he has begun taking credit for Obama-era successes – and his actual duties. Rather than doing his job, Pruitt is gas-lighting the American public about how actions such as loosening regulations, ignoring climate change and opening space for the corporate exploitation of United States land and water are somehow beneficial to the environment.
Water contamination and other environmental crises disproportionately affect people of color and poor folks – according to Pruitt’s own EPA – so that may be a factor in the overall public disinterest. However, the echoes of Flint and Puerto Rico are not so faint that an EPA chief suppressing findings about poisoned water shouldn’t raise alarms. Pruitt’s other, more colorful scandals may continue to draw our eye. But what he did just in this instance with the HHS report should have been enough to force him out of office. It is well past time that the corruption of the environment was taken as seriously as the corruption of our government.
What may spell Pruitt’s doom is that many Trump supporters are starting to realize that they were conned. Those folks are getting the racism and misogyny that they voted for, as well as the reality-show antics that, even in the setting of federal government, they likely view as entertainment. But the Big Government For White People thing, predictably, has been hurting the white, working-class Americans we know as the Typical Trump Voter. Amid the farmers who may get hit with Chinese tariffs and the small business owners who have trouble hiring seasonal immigrant laborers, there are the auto workers making fewer cars because the White House, along with Pruitt, decided to lower fuel efficiency standards to placate their sponsors in the fossil fuel industry.
If we know anything about "Typical Trump Voters" after all this anthropology in the press, it's that they are always looking for someone to blame for their troubles. If they aren't willing to sacrifice Trump, their god of resentment, why not Pruitt? After all, he is working consciously to worsen American public health and to speed up the end of human life on this planet. That should be a fireable offense.
Scott Pruitt's office did not respond to Rolling Stone's request for comment on this piece.