The Memo: At EPA, Pruitt is gone but policies stay

The Memo: At EPA, Pruitt is gone but policies stay
© Getty Images

Even members of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump knocks BuzzFeed over Cohen report, points to Russia dossier DNC says it was targeted by Russian hackers after fall midterms BuzzFeed stands by Cohen report: Mueller should 'make clear what he's disputing' MORE’s circle acknowledge that Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Wheeler weathers climate criticism at confirmation hearing | Dems want Interior to stop drilling work during shutdown | 2018 was hottest year for oceans Dems blast EPA nominee at confirmation hearing Dem senator expresses concern over acting EPA chief's 'speedy promotion' MORE’s departure from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was overdue.

But they also contend that his ouster will not produce any noticeable change in policy. And environmentalists worry they might be right.

After months of ethics-related controversies — his conduct was being examined as part of no fewer than 15 probes — Pruitt finally resigned on Thursday. 

ADVERTISEMENT

His replacement — at least on an interim basis — is Andrew Wheeler, a Pruitt deputy whose resume includes stints as a coal lobbyist and as an aide to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), perhaps the most prominent denier of climate change on Capitol Hill.

That’s enough to leave environmental groups deeply concerned, even as they welcome Pruitt’s departure.

Fred Krupp, the president of the Environmental Defense Fund, told The Hill that “the work will continue” aimed at “dismantling” the EPA.

“Pruitt ran into so many problems due to his shoddy ethics,” Krupp said. “But now [President] Trump turns to Andy Wheeler to do the same thing, out of the limelight.”  

Supporters of the administration view the situation as the mirror image of that scenario.

They argue that Pruitt’s controversies overshadowed his policy work, which they consider valuable.

“Look, the allegations and controversy reached a critical mass,” said one former Trump administration official. “Some of it is fair and some is not, but there is no question taxpayer resources were not being properly used and there were clear lapses in judgment.”

However, the former official added: “Pruitt’s EPA has had a tremendous impact policy-wise that will get overlooked in all of this. The EPA was one of the most out of control branches of the federal government and he brought it to heel.”

Trump paid tribute to Pruitt in the hours after his resignation, telling reporters aboard Air Force One that he did “an outstanding job.” The president also talked up Wheeler, noting that he was “very much an early Trump supporter.”

Pruitt’s record at the EPA is deeply contentious. It includes a decision to withdraw from former President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a suspension of a key clean water rule and a proposal to change the way coal ash is treated.

He also advocated for the United States to withdraw from the Paris climate accords, a position that was endorsed by the president.

In all of those instances, critics accuse him of rolling back important safeguards and endangering public and environmental health. 

His defenders contend that he has helped ease the regulatory burden on businesses in general and the fossil fuel industry in particular.

In the end, however, he could not survive a long and ever-growing list of ethical issues. 

Pruitt controversies include allegations surrounding his renting a room from the wife of an energy lobbyist for $50 per night, going around the White House to get hefty pay raises for key aides, asking aides to run personal errands and seeking employment for his wife.

Another tale that received plenty of attention was one where Pruitt reportedly sought to purchase a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

Someone in Trump’s orbit who spoke to the president about Pruitt in the days leading up to the EPA director’s ouster called the mattress story “the final straw.” The request seemed tawdry to the president, according to this source.

The same source stated he was “not surprised” by Pruitt’s departure, and that the exit was “long overdue.”

A separate source, a GOP strategist with ties to the White House, also acknowledged that Pruitt’s resignation was “a long time coming.”

“He has been generating so much negative publicity it has been overwhelming any possible positive publicity regarding the polices of the Trump administration,” this person added. “He was getting the job done but he could not sustain it because he did not behave well, personally — ethically — while in office.”

Prominent progressives expressed glee at Pruitt's departure. Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersKamala Harris picks Baltimore as headquarters for potential 2020 campaign: report Sen. Casey says he won't run for president in 2020 Women's March plans 'Medicare for All' day of lobbying in DC MORE (I-Vt.) called him the “the worst EPA administrator in the history of the agency.” 

But House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiOn The Money: Trump teases 'major announcement' Saturday on shutdown | Fight with Dems intensifies | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking trip to Afghanistan | Mnuchin refuses to testify on shutdown impacts Ellen DeGeneres buys cheesecakes from furloughed federal workers who were baking to make ends meet Trump teases 'major announcement' about shutdown on Saturday MORE (D-Calif.), while also welcoming Pruitt’s exit, sounded the alarm about Wheeler:

“It is deeply concerning that the president has chosen to elevate a coal lobby kingpin even more focused than his predecessor on advancing the toxic Trump agenda and destroying critical protections for the health and safety of families,” she said in a statement.  

The former Trump administration official argued just the opposite:

“The good work will continue,” the official asserted. “Hopefully with fewer distractions.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.