Following months of corruption allegations, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned on Thursday. The news came in the form of two tweets from President Trump. EPA Deputy Andrew Wheeler, a former coal-industry lobbyist, will take over for Pruitt on an interim basis.
…on Monday assume duties as the acting Administrator of the EPA. I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda. We have made tremendous progress and the future of the EPA is very bright!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2018
By the time he resigned, Pruitt was facing 13 different investigations and inquiries into his spending habits, personnel decisions and other behavior. It’s still not quite clear how Pruitt hung on as long as he did and why Trump waited to push his scandal-ridden EPA chief out the door. In recent weeks, even Republicans had soured on Pruitt, among them Sen. James Inhofe, a fellow Oklahoma Republican and climate-change skeptic.
Democrats in Congress and environmental activists said Pruitt’s resignation was long overdue. “That this took so long shows how high the Trump administration’s tolerance is for corruption and sleaze,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said in a statement. “The sad part is that it was the cascade of little sleazy acts that brought Pruitt down, not his overarching corruption by fossil fuel interests.” Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH) issued a one-sentence statement responding to the news: “It’s about time.” Watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington’s response was even shorter: “Good.”
No cabinet secretary embodied the deregulatory zeal and ethical shadiness of the Trump administration like Pruitt. He came to the job from the Oklahoma attorney general’s office, where he cultivated an especially cozy relationship with fossil-fuel companies and other industry groups. He arrived in Washington on a self-proclaimed, God-driven mission to make good on President Trump’s vow to “get rid” of the EPA in “almost every form.”
Pruitt set out to make the EPA more friendly to business and to roll back the Obama administration’s initiatives on climate change, chemical safety and clean air and water. He filled his schedule with dinners and private meetings with leaders from the fossil-fuel and automotive industries while giving little if any time to environmental and public-health groups. And he quickly got to work weakening or repealing everything from Obama’s landmark Clean Power Plan and standards on tailpipe emissions to rules on coal ash and smog. He cut back on enforcement actions against polluters and helped push out career EPA employees who disagreed with his pro-industry philosophy for the agency.
The 50-year-old Pruitt was, for a time, the ideal Trump cabinet secretary, doing all in his power to make good on the Trump administration’s vow to “dismantle the administrative state.” But Pruitt quickly became the poster child for the White House’s ethical failings and brazen flouting of anything so much as resembling clean and open government.
Pruitt was corrupt and ethically bankrupt to an almost unfathomable degree. He finagled himself a legally questionable living arrangement by paying $50 a night for a bedroom in a property belonging to a Washington lobbyist who had clients with business before the EPA. Pruitt had a $43,000 secure phone booth installed in his EPA office suite – an upgrade that violated not one but two federal laws, according to a federal watchdog. He flew first-class and spent huge sums of money on travel and on a massive security team, which he justified with dubious statistics about the number of threats made against him. And he abused that security detail by having his motorcade turn on its sirens so that he could save time en route to dinner at his favorite French restaurant.
The day before he resigned, Pruitt dined at the Fourth of July picnic on the White House lawn.
One day before he resigned, Scott Pruitt showed up at the White House for the July 4 party and fireworks. pic.twitter.com/MQAyNL1zbO
— Robert Costa (@costareports) July 5, 2018
As EPA administrator, Pruitt preferred to operate in the dark. He and his staff did their best to avoid scrutiny by the journalists covering the agency, keeping Pruitt’s travel itineraries secret and seemingly slow-rolling freedom of information requests. A spokesman for Pruitt once referred to a journalist writing about Pruitt as a “piece of trash”; in another instance, a journalist was physically removed from an EPA event that she tried to cover.
Pruitt treated his EPA staff like personal assistants and servants. He enlisted his scheduler to find him somewhere to live in Washington, and later to try to find a job for his wife as a Chick-Fil-a franchisee or at a Republican dark-money group. He asked those staffers to run errands for him, including buying his favorite snacks. He also had them book his travel on their personal credit cards and then never reimbursed them.
Pruitt’s resignation letter was obtained by Fox News White House correspondent John Roberts.
— Fin Gomez (@finnygo) July 5, 2018
Pruitt will be replaced on an interim basis by EPA Deputy Andrew Wheeler, a former fossil-fuel lobbyist who has worked in Washington for 20 years.
Like Pruitt, Wheeler has championed deregulating the energy industry, and many feel he could be more adept at instituting policy than his predecessor. Wheeler will take over for Pruitt only until Trump is able to nominate a permanent replacement, who will then need to be confirmed by the Senate. Trump could nominate Wheeler to retain the position, although last month Wheeler said he had “no interest” in leading the EPA.
Environmental groups and Democrats say they view Wheeler as a leader in the same mold from an environmental protection standpoint as Pruitt. The Union of Concerned Scientists has called Wheeler “an unabashed inside man for major polluters on Capitol Hill” judging by his years as a Hill staffer working on energy and environment issues and as a lobbyist for coal companies.
It’s unclear what Wheeler plans to do with the monogrammed EPA accessories Pruitt allegedly requested, or the customized fountain pens Pruitt bought with over $1,500 of taxpayer money from a Washington, D.C. jewelry store. Nor is there word on whether that $43,000 phone booth will remain.