First class flights, pricey office furniture, a soundproof booth and a security detail the size of a small police department. And don’t forget a rented room inside a condo owned by a lobbyist’s wife. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is embroiled in a series of ethics scandals, and it’s led to speculation about his future there.
What do the various scandals surrounding Pruitt mean for the EPA? In our latest episode of our Trump on Earth podcast, NPR’S Rebecca Hersher and Jennifer Ludden and the New Republic’s Emily Atkin outline Pruitt’s various troubles, from his $160,000 in taxpayer money spent on his first-class or charter flights, to the pay raises he gave two staff members even though the White House had turned the pay hikes down, to the soundproof booth he had built in his office.
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Pruitt has defended the $50-a-night room rental in a condo owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist as a matter of expediency.
“He said ‘I was living out of a suitcase, I moved in quickly, they offered to do me this solid by renting this room at market rate,’” Hersher said. “The thicket of answers about why he would rent this room is dense–and still unanswered.”
Ludden said one puzzling aspect of Pruitt’s scandals is that he’s one of Trump’s most experienced cabinet members, in contrast to many of Trump’s appointees.
“Scott Pruitt was attorney general of Oklahoma before — he did have public service and in his role you could argue he would have needed to be highly aware of ethics regulations,” Ludden said.
Low morale at the agency — which Pruitt sued 14 times as Oklahoma’s attorney general–is likely the reason for the deluge of news coming out of the agency.
“You have a lot of people there who feel disrespected by the people running the agency. They don’t feel like their expertise matters,” Hersher said. “It’s not particularly surprising to me that there might be leaks, that there might be information making its way out about the less-than-savory decisions made by the person in charge, that under different circumstances, might have been kept more tightly if he had a better relationships with the people he worked with.”
Ludden said Pruitt’s penchant for secrecy — as exhibited by his request for a $43,000 soundproof booth in his office — are a direct reflection of the distrust between Pruitt and the staff of the EPA.
“He’s made no secret of the fact he sees a lot of things wrong with some of the things the agency’s been doing,” Ludden said. “He clearly felt the need for a super secret private soundproof booth to have conversations in his own office because he didn’t want other people in the agency to hear. That speaks to the deep distrust between the staff and Pruitt.”
Yet despite these scandals, Pruitt has (thusfar) kept his job. Emily Atkin, staff writer for the New Republic, told Trump on Earth she thinks his job security revolves around President Trump’s trust that Pruitt is a “political asset.”
Pruitt has begun rolling back or delaying dozens of EPA regulations, adding to an impression held by many that Pruitt is a savvy political operator who is efficiently tearing down Obama’s environmental legacy. But Atkin says this image is only part true. She points out that of the more than 30 environmental rollbacks he’s initiated, “none have culminated in a regulation being repealed that was not already on hold by courts.”
“What Scott Pruitt is really effective at right now is looking like he’s effective,” Atkin said. “He’s starting this agenda and (is) really popular among Trump’s base in coal country — in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania. Those people still like Scott Pruitt, so I think that’s why the President is still holding onto him.”
Also important in this equation is the fact that conservative donors and conservative institutions have stood behind Pruitt. Last week, leaders of several conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation, the Tea Party Patriots, and FreedomWorks signed a letter to President Trump in support of Pruitt.
“He’s got the support from most important Republicans in Congress — (including Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Tom Barrasso (R-WY) and Texas Republican Ted Cruz) –and he’s got the backing of the donor base,” Atkin said. “Because they want to see these Obama-era regulations repealed, they want to see climate and air pollution science have a smaller role at EPA. And Scott Pruitt, he hasn’t done all of it yet, he’s sure trying.”
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