Calls for Trump's climate-science denying Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Scott Pruitt to resign are mounting, as the New York Times on Thursday published a detailed look at four high-ranking EPA staffers who were forced out of their jobs after objecting to Pruitt's spending habits and management of the agency.
Inside EPA, Pruitt lost the support of many long-time Trump associates, like Kevin Chmielewski, who pushed back against Pruitt's attempt to use taxpayer money on unlimited access to a private jet at a stunning $100,000 a month and $70,000 for two desks for Pruitt and his security team, one of which was to be “bulletproof.” Chmielewski was placed on unpaid administrative leave after objecting to Pruitt's plans for that luxury spending spree on the taxpayer's dime.
Self-described global warming skeptic and Trump EPA transition team member David Schnare also abandoned Pruitt, resigning from his EPA post last summer over Pruitt's “mismanagement” of the agency, The Times reported in August.
“He wanted to be treated like he was the president,” Schnare told The Times, describing Pruitt's request for a bullet-proof SUV, a motorcade with sirens (used once to speed the EPA chief through Washington, D.C., traffic to a fancy French dinner), and Pruitt's 20-member security detail.
Pruitt has also alienated his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, a former staffer for Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe (the long-time friend to the oil and gas industry who once brought a snowball onto the Senate floor in an effort to support his doubt that the climate is changing). Jackson, The Times reported, is considering leaving his EPA job after growing frustrated by Pruitt's out-of-control spending on personal luxuries.
On Friday, the Times reported that Trump's Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has joined the ranks of those calling for Pruitt's firing or resignation, telling the President a week ago that he should ditch Pruitt over his ethical and spending scandals.
But in some circles, Pruitt still enjoys strong support. These individuals, undeterred by Pruitt's long – and growing – résumé of misdeeds, exorbitant spending of taxpayer money, and ethical scandals that have been exposed by the press and Pruitt's current and former colleagues, have turned up in full force to defend Pruitt.
Many of them have one thing in common: They work for think tanks that built their reputations on rejecting climate science and attacking the EPA, like the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
If you ask the Heartland Institute, Pruitt's problem isn't that he, for example, pulled EPA's criminal enforcement agents (the folks who should be busy doing things like guarding American drinking water supplies against intentional toxic chemical dumping) off their jobs, turning them into his own private security detail. It's his political affiliation.
“Funny what happens when a Republican wins the White House,” The Heartland Institute's Julie Kelly wrote in a piece published Tuesday. “The media mob suddenly develops an interest in transparency and fiscal responsibility.”
But Chmielewski, Schnare and Jackson are hardly members of the “media mob.” The Times itself offered a pithy and devastating rebuttal to that line of criticism: “The revelations about his staff turnover, which have not been previously reported, demonstrate that concerns about his spending and leadership resonated within his own team well before they became the subject of media reports and investigations by the EPA inspector general and the White House.”
The Heritage Foundation has blamed Pruitt's troubles on a vaguely defined “left” (and more conspiratorially, simply an undefined “them”) in a commentary published April 4, arguing that Pruitt is being persecuted simply because “he doesn’t believe we should be creating useless regulations that eliminate jobs and make families pay more for energy just so Al Gore and most of Hollywood can feel good about themselves.”
To be sure, many on the left have objected to Pruitt's policies – but not because they say they want to make Hollywood “feel good.” Instead, environmental and community groups cite the real environmental harm that comes along with Pruitt's neglect of EPA's obligation to enforce the nation's keystone environmental laws – a dereliction of duty that exacerbates long-standing pollution problems. Those failures carry a high cost.
“Last week, while the EPA was embroiled in Scott Pruitt’s escalating ethics controversies, the agency quietly posted its latest report showing that our water systems will require nearly half a trillion dollars over the coming 20 years,” Food & Water Watch's Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said in a statement Thursday. “This is a stunning development amid a backdrop of worsening water infrastructure crises across the country.”
Nonetheless, Pruitt still enjoys the support of the man who played a key role in appointing him, Competitive Enterprise Institute director and chief of Trump's EPA transition team Myron Ebell. “We're getting the word out that Administrator Pruitt is doing a good job in implementing the president's agenda and Administrator Pruitt is a key part of that agenda,” Ebell told E&E News in an interview published Tuesday, calling the long list of Pruitt's scandals “little messes.”
Those “little messes” now also include Pruitt's suspiciously cheap $50-a-night stays at a Capitol Hill apartment owned by the wife of a D.C. lobbyist representing Enbridge, which sought approval to build a pipeline (approved by the EPA while Pruitt was still routinely staying in that apartment), making an end-run around the White House to offer his favored staffers huge pay hikes, using taxpayer funds for a sound-proof booth in his office, and even running months late paying the rent at that $50-a-night luxury apartment.
Huffington Post collected a list of 23 ethics scandals dogging Pruitt.
And while Pruitt's scandals have become so severe that a Fox News reporter asked him point blank Wednesday, “Is draining the swamp renting an apartment from the wife of a Washington lobbyist?” science-denying Junkscience publisher Steve Milloy penned an editorial on Fox News defending Pruitt shortly after The New York Times piece appeared.
“The pro-Pruitt message is also being amplified by CRC Public Relations, a Virginia-based firm with a roster of conservative clients that’s headed by a former Pat Buchanan communications director,” Bloomberg reported on Thursday. CRC Public Relations lists its clients as including oil giant Chevron and numerous Koch-backed groups like the Institute for Energy Research and Americans for Prosperity.
Calls for Pruitt to resign have mounted this week.
“Mr. Pruitt, please, give us a break and go home to Oklahoma,” former EPA Director of Civil Enforcement Eric Schaeffer, now Environmental Integrity Project Executive Director, said in a Tuesday statement. “You’ll save the taxpayers millions of dollars a year, and we’ll all breathe easier.”
Pruitt has even started losing support from House Republicans. Florida Republican Carlos Curbelo posted a call for Pruitt's resignation or firing on Twitter Tuesday, writing: “Major policy differences aside, @EPAScottPruitt‘s corruption scandals are an embarrassment to the Administration, and his conduct is grossly disrespectful to American taxpayers.” Rep. Curbelo was seconded by Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who made her comments in an interview with CNN, and New York Republican Elise Stefanik, who announced her opposition Thursday.
In contrast, Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz emphasized their support for Pruitt on Twitter, tweeting out messages that were picked up by The Daily Caller, calling Pruitt “the bravest” (per Rand Paul) and claiming that Trump is “too cagey to be duped and bullied” while citing a pro-Pruitt blog (Ted Cruz). Adding another repetition to the echo chamber, FreedomWorks then promoted the Daily Caller piece to its more than quarter-million Twitter followers while pushing a #StandWithScottPruitt hashtag.
As of Thursday evening, Pruitt's supporters apparently still include not only professional climate science deniers and Senators Paul and Cruz, but also the President. “I think he’s done a fantastic job,” Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday, Politico reported. “I think he’s done an incredible job.”
On Friday, Trump seemed to double down on that message, but muddied the waters by mixing in a reference to reports he was considering promoting Pruitt to Attorney General, a move that Pruitt, a former Republican Attorney Generals Association member, is said to be lobbying the president to make. “Do you believe that the Fake News Media is pushing hard on a story that I am going to replace A.G. Jeff Sessions with EPA Chief Scott Pruitt,” Trump tweeted, “who is doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege?”
UPDATE: This piece, originally published on Thursday, April 5, 2018, was updated to reflect additional developments on Friday April 6th.
Main image: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, public domain