In replacing Pruitt, Trump should learn from Reagan

President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE finally cut ties with disgraced EPA administrator, Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittGovernment watchdog probing EPA’s handling of Hurricane Harvey response Wheeler won’t stop America’s addiction to fossil fuels Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas MORE. In replacing Pruitt, Trump might ask, “What would Reagan do?”

This is a very relevant question, in fact, because Reagan had to replace an administrator, Anne Gorsuch, under similar circumstances. Like Pruitt, she spent much of her time at the EPA trying to undo the work that other administrations had put in place. Like Pruitt, she had supported the idea of slashing the EPA’s budget and had a fraught relationship with many EPA career staffers. Like Pruitt, she was caught up in scandal. One of the last chapters of her time as an administrator entailed Congress holding her in contempt because she was not forthcoming in giving Congress a financial accounting of funds that her agency was suspected of mishandling. It might be useful to think of her as Pruitt 1.0.

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So, what did Reagan do? He opted to reappoint former administrator William Ruckelshaus to lead the agency. Ruckelshaus was the first administrator of the EPA and had previously won over a great deal of credibility with EPA staff and the public. With Reagan’s blessing, Ruckelshaus came in and not only got the agency out from under the cloud of scandal but also got the agency refocused on its mission: protecting the environment.

Reagan realized something that Trump has not yet seemed to grasp. Trump is at-risk of learning the wrong lesson from Pruitt—that Pruitt’s dismantling the EPA is what is needed, just without all the alleged scandal and distraction. Long after the public has forgotten about Pruitt’s scandals, the American people will be living in an environment shaped in part by his policy decisions, an environment that will be more polluted and less safe. Isn’t that the real scandal?

Americans, though they may not all be granola-munching tree huggers, want a healthy environment. They want clean air. They care about its potential effects on their health and worry about its impact on the most vulnerable—the sick, the elderly, and the very young. They want clean water in their taps; the ability to swim in nearby lakes, fish in rivers; and play at the beach. They do not want toxic waste polluting land close to where they live, work, recreate or go to school. They worry about the health of their children and worry about what kind of place we are leaving them. 

Who might be Trump's Ruckelshaus—meaning someone who could restore credibility to EPA leadership, get the agency back to focusing on protecting the environment and do all this without alienating Republicans in Congress? A tall order, granted, but still within reach. For example as Reagan did, Trump might start with former EPA administrators, Bill Reilly (who served under President George H.W. Bush) or Christine Todd Whitman (who served under President George W. Bush) would be trusted by the public and EPA staff and also have established credentials in the GOP. Regardless, Trump should not only look for an administrator who can turn the page on corruption, he should also appoint a leader who can help the EPA meet its mission of protecting the environment, something the public overwhelmingly supports.

Professor Daniels is a professor of environmental law at BYU Law School. He has expertise in environmental law, property law and natural resources law. Prior to joining the J. Reuben Clark Law School he taught as an assistant professor at the University of Houston Law Center and as a lecturing fellow at Duke Law School. Views and opinions expressed in here are the professor’s and not the institution’s.