Leave it to Chris Christie, the disgraced former New Jersey governor and ex-Donald Trump lapdog, to lower the boom on EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. Last weekend, after news broke that Pruitt had scored a sweetheart deal for a condo from a lobbyist pal in D.C., Christie predicted that it was finally time for Pruitt to go. "I don't know how you survive this one," Christie told ABC's "This Week." Well, I don't claim to know more about how Trump's swampland works than Christie, but here's one way Pruitt survives: Do not administer the Environmental Protection Agency (as the job title suggests), but dismantle it. And do it with sly efficiency, shameless devotion and frequent presidential ass kissing.
Even by the dank-basement ethical standards of the Trump administration, scoring a $50 a night condo – a fraction of the market rate – in Washington, D.C. from the wife of the head of the lobbying firm Williams & Jensen, doesn't look good. Especially since Williams & Jensen represented a Canadian energy company that was pushing a pipeline-expansion plan with the EPA, and which, lo and behold, the EPA approved. Of course, both the EPA and the lobbying firm dispute that there was any connection between the agency's action and the condo rental: "Any attempt to draw that link is patently false," said Liz Bowman, a spokeswoman for Mr. Pruitt. And as an example of just how fine-tuned Pruitt's ethical compass is, Pruitt himself has said he was "dumbfounded" that anyone considered it an ethical breech for him to rent a below-market-rate condo from a lobbyist who was pushing a case before an agency he is running.
And if that's not enough, as The Atlantic reported, Pruitt used a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act to reappoint two longtime allies so that he could give them raises that the White House had rejected. One of those employees, Millan Hupp, was involved in Pruitt's personal search for housing last summer, an apparent violation of ethics rules.
What makes this especially damning for Pruitt is that it follows a long list of princely corruption, including spending more than $100,000 on first-class flights, apparently because he'd been accosted by another passenger once when flying coach.(The Washington Post reported that the EPA had considered a $100,000-a-month private jet contract but rejected it.) Pruitt, whose paranoid style is at times downright comical, also spent more than $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth for his office.
That Pruitt would step into this pile of dogshit is no surprise to anyone who knows his record. As I wrote a few months after he was confirmed at EPA, his time as Oklahoma Attorney General was notable for two things: his distrust and disdain for the federal government (he filed 14 lawsuits against the EPA), and his expertise at collecting dark money from the fossil fuel industry through shadowy groups like The Rule of Law Defense Fund. As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who grilled Pruitt about the sources of his dark money during the confirmation hearings, told me at the time, "He is a puppet of the fossil fuel industry, and we have a right to know who is pulling his strings."
But the real scandal of the Pruitt regime is not about condos or first class airline tickets. It's about dismantling the EPA and gutting rules that protect clean water, clean air and a stable climate.
Here's a short list of his accomplishments so far:
Scaled back the Clean Power Plan, which would have mandated lower greenhouse gas emissions at existing power plants.
Released talking points on climate change aimed at playing down the role of human activity.
Postponed a rule mandating that chemical plants warn the public about possible safety issues.
Rejected a ban on a pesticide linked to nervous system damage in children.
Pushed to repeal emission standards for truck components.
Repealed a rule aimed at giving the EPA broader authority over water pollution.
Removed objective scientists from an EPA advisory board.
In this context, this week's announcement that the EPA intends to weaken auto emissions standards is hardly surprising. Pruitt started by saying it was "wrong" for the Obama administration to implement tougher vehicle emissions standards, in 2012, which require automakers to nearly double the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. These tougher standards could have a big impact: besides reducing air pollution, the rules could cut oil consumption by about 12 billion barrels and reduce carbon dioxide pollution by about six billion tons. Pruitt announced that the agency would "reexamine" these standards – which is Pruitt-code for loosening them. Exactly how much, he didn't say.
What's notable is that Pruitt didn't even attempt to give a scientific or economic justification for this rollback. And, of course, he didn't mention that, shortly after Trump was elected, the CEOs of General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler met with the president to whine that the rules were too onerous.
Pruitt also announced that the EPA plans to challenge California's right to set higher emissions standards, which it has done since the 1970s under a waiver in the Clean Air Act. This was a flashy but probably futile legal move by Pruitt. The results of the state's tough air pollution standards, as any Californian can tell you, have been remarkable: cleaner air and a thriving economy. About 12 states have followed those rules, and they have become the de facto standards for automakers, since the notion of making two different vehicle fleets for two different markets is just too complex.
Revoking California's waiver to set its own standard will be a legal quagmire, and one that will ultimately require a congressional amendment to the Clean Air Act. California officials, including State Attorney General Xavier Becerra and head of California Air Resources Board Mary Nichols, have vowed to fight it. Not to mention California Governor Jerry Brown, who relishes a showdown with Trump. "Watch out for this belated April Fools' Day trick," Brown said shortly after the Pruitt's announcement. "This cynical and meretricious abuse of power will poison our air and jeopardize the health of all Americans."
But Pruitt's move also opens a can of worms for automakers. Are they going to build one fleet of vehicles for California and the 12 states that follow their lead and another fleet for the rest of the country? Are American auto industry executives dumb enough to think that his rollback is anything but a sugar cookie high? You don't have to spend millions on high-priced industry consultants to see that in the long term – even in the medium-term – the internal combustion engine is dead. China, among other places, has figured this out. In 2017, Chinese automakers built 680,000 electric cars, buses and trucks – more than the rest of the world combined. By loosening fuel standards, the Trump administration is making sure U.S. automakers remain mired in the past, not leaning into the future.
Is Chris Christie, or anyone else, raising hell about this? No. It's the condo scandal that is causing headaches for Pruitt, not the willful trashing of the planet and ever-escalating risks of public heath.
And even on Pruitt's deeper corruption mess, Republicans have mostly been silent. Besides Christie (who is out of the game and really doesn't count), exactly two Republican members of Congress have raised their voices, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). In a tweet on Tuesday, Curbelo said Pruitt's "corruption scandals are an embarrassment to the Administration, and his conduct is grossly disrespectful to American taxpayers…It's time for him to resign or for [Trump] to dismiss him." But Curbelo, a moderate whose district in south Florida, as it turns out, is going to be under water in the not-so-distant future due to sea level rise, is hardly a powerhouse in the party.
It may be that Pruitt has fallen into an ethical cesspool too deep even for Trump to swim in, and will soon be discarded like other corrupt former cabinet members. More likely, though, in Trump's world, Pruitt is not considered an embarrassment or a symbol of corruption at all, but the purest distillation of the president's environmental ethos, which is to piss on Obama's legacy and empower and enrich the fossil fuel mafia. And if the cost of pushing that ethos comes in neurological damage to children from ingesting brain-warping pesticides, or in ensuring a future of chaos, disease and economic wreckage from the impacts of a rapidly changing climate, so be it. Pruitt understands how this game is played as well as anyone. And with those attributes, it may take more than a condo scandal to get him booted out of office.