On Thursday, America said good riddance to Scott Pruitt, whose oily reign as head of the Environmental Protection Agency is finally over. But as the country and the world let out a sigh of relief over his departure, the breath we draw afterward will be all the more polluted by his legacy.
Pruitt, who resigned on a tide of corruption allegations Thursday, came to office with a mandate to wage war on the environment on behalf of coal and oil. During his year and a half in office, he launched the largest regulatory rollback in the agency’s history, undoing, delaying or blocking Obama-era environmental rules. Among them was a suite of historic regulations aimed at mitigating global warming pollution from the American vehicles and power plants.
Along the way, Pruitt led the charge to rip the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, a favorite campaign trail applause line of Trump’s, ruining America’s credibility on the international stage and turning the country’s back on a climate change mitigation agreement signed by every other nation on earth. At home, Pruitt enforced ignorance of global warming, erasing all mention of climate change from the agency’s website.
As a former attorney general in the oil-rich state of Oklahoma, Pruitt cut his professional chops suing the EPA before Trump ushered him to its helm. Once there, he made the place cozy for fossil fuel lobbyists and torpedoed the agency’s scientific mission, prompting an exodus of over 700 chemists, biologists, economists, epidemiologists, lab techs, lawyers and engineers who couldn’t stomach the professional degradation he brought with him.
And by all accounts, Pruitt was doing exactly what Trump – who thinks climate change a “hoax – hired him to do. But the destructiveness of his agenda was matched by his pettiness of his graft, the stench of which became so strong that not even Trump and his Republican apologists could ignore it.
Yet, were many of these Republicans not facing a tough Congressional election this year, it’s unclear how long the embarrassing scandals would have continued to pile up.
Over the months it was revealed that Pruitt took a generous rental deal on a condo owned by a major lobbyist’s wife; enlisted government employees to do menial personal tasks for him; obtained expensive and unprecedented 24-hour security; pressed to fly first-class and by private jet; saw extravagant office upgrades, used his position to try to get his wife a lucrative job, and took extremely expensive foreign trips only glancingly related to his public responsibilities.
More bizarrely, Pruitt sent aides in search of a used mattress from one of Trump’s hotels, and had them scour Washington-era Ritz Carltons in search of a skin moisturizer that Pruitt had once tried and liked. When these staff members brought this and all of his other egregious behavior to light, they were demoted, resigned or fired.
With Pruitt’s exit, Trump is losing a kindred spirit. When he accepting Pruitt’s resignation, Trump tweeted supportively: “Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this.” Speaking to later to reporters on Air Force One, Trump said Pruitt was a “terrific guy.” The president said the decision to leave was Pruitt’s, but then noted to reporters, “We’ve been talking about it for a little while.”
The drumbeat of toxic publicity finally forced Trump to turn against Pruitt. But it’s not likely to change his administration’s agenda of eroding American environmental policy. Andrew Wheeler, Pruitt’s deputy, is expected to fill his shoes to an exact match – though presumably without the humiliating scandals.
Wheeler is a former coal industry lobbyist and a former aide to Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who has denied the existence of climate change and has long opposed legislation to address global warming.
One task facingWheeler is to rebuild morale at the EPA.The agency’s career staff has been under siege. When President Trump’s tweet appeared announcing the Pruitt resignation, there were reports of cheering in the agency’s hallways.
In the end, Pruitt was driven from office for having abused his position at a level outrageous even for this ethically compromised administration, where nepotism, self-dealing and abuse of office seem to be job requirements.
Yet if Trump continues down the same policy paths, as seems likely, Pruitt’s more lasting legacy, along with the president’s, will be an overheated planet and shortened life spans.