Keeping Pruitt could cost GOP Congress, Trump in the fall

Keeping Pruitt could cost GOP Congress, Trump in the fall
© Greg Nash

Despite repeated and flagrant abuses of taxpayer trust and sweetheart deals from energy lobbyists, any of which would have doomed previous cabinet members, embattled Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittChristie says Trump hired 'riffraff' in new book Meet 3 women who stood up to Trump to protect the American people — and lost their jobs Overnight Energy: Wheeler weathers climate criticism at confirmation hearing | Dems want Interior to stop drilling work during shutdown | 2018 was hottest year for oceans MORE appears to still have the support of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump claims media 'smeared' students involved in encounter with Native American man Al Sharpton criticizes Trump’s ‘secret’ visit to MLK monument Gillibrand cites spirituality in 2020 fight against Trump’s ‘dark’ values MORE, even though White House aides are urging he be fired.

The president’s theory seems to be that Pruitt’s mission to dismantle environmental protections at EPA and investigations of him will fire up the right-wing base turnout in November.

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This sounds like wishful thinking. It’s far more likely that headlines about Pruitt’s taxpayer abuses right up to election day will help mobilize college-educated suburban swing voters disgusted by the Trump’s administration’s ethical corruption and rejection of science in favor of polluters. 

 

Leading pollsters say these are just the voters Republicans need to keep Congress. Losing them could be just enough to bring about a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, creating potentially inescapable entanglements for president himself.

One has to ask: Is Scott Pruitt really worth that? After all, Pruitt didn’t even support Trump’s presidential bid, preferring Jeb Bush, and said during the campaign that Trump would be “more abusive to the Constitution than Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama puts out call for service on MLK Day: ‘Make a positive impact on the world’ Trump, Pence visit MLK Memorial Trump offers to limit his border wall to strategic locations MORE — and that’s saying a lot.” 

Equally striking has been the apathy of Republican members of Congress, whose own majority is in play, but who thus far have seemed content to ignore Pruitt’s malfeasances and treat him with kid gloves.

At a Senate hearing Wednesday, however, that seemed to change. Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback The Memo: Concern over shutdown grows in Trump World Kaine to force Senate to hold rare Saturday session amid shutdown MORE (R-Alaska) seemed to speak for many of her GOP concerned colleagues when she said, “I’m being asked, really constantly asked, to comment on housing and security and travel. Instead of seeing articles about efforts to return your agency to its core mission, I’m reading articles about your interactions with the industries that you regulate.” 

But as with so much else, only Trump will decide Pruitt’s fate.

Nevertheless, in the coming mid-term campaign, Democrats are certain to make Pruitt the poster boy of Trump administration corruption in ad after ad. A sampling of these abuses will no doubt include:

  • Pruitt spent $36,000 on one military jet to New York in order to catch a $7,003 flight to Rome;
  • In Rome for two weeks in June, he used $120,000 of taxpayer money on fancy hotels and restaurants and private Vatican tours, while meeting with a Cardinal accused of sexual abuse;
  • Pruitt’s team proposed buying a $100,000-a-month charter aircraft membership so he could take unlimited trips in a private jet when he was traveling for official business. 
  • Pruitt has spent $3 million and counting on a 24-hour security detail of the type none of his predecessors have had;
  • He installed a “cone of silence” special phone security booth in his office that cost almost $43,000;
  • Pruitt’s head of security wanted to spend about $70,000 to replace two desks in his office suite, one a bulletproof model, but aides objected and the bulletproof desk was not purchased, though two other expensive desks were;
  • Trips paid by taxpayers to Disneyland, the Rose Bowl game and a University of Kentucky basketball game; and
  • He rented a luxury condo next to the capital for a below market value at $50 dollars a night (only paying when he stayed) from an energy lobbyist who was lobbying Pruitt directly at the time on a pork producer who had illegal dumped hog waste in a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.

There are now a dozen investigations going on into Pruitt’s spending by the EPA’s inspector general and others. These are shocking enough, and just the kind of real-world corruption examples voters can understand.

But Democrats will also make the case that Pruitt’s policies are harming the pocketbooks and health of average Americans at the behest of big polluters. For example:

  • Rolling back fuel efficiency standards as Pruitt is advocating will cost average drivers thousands in extra gasoline costs over the life of a new vehicle according to EPA’s own estimates;
  • Pruitt’s announced intention to scuttle the Clean Power Plan emissions reduction regulations would result in the premature deaths of 120,000 Americans and cost an additional $600 billion in health and other costs by 2050, according to research by Energy Innovation, private group of experts;
  • Immense and growing costs of U.S. climate change impacts (which Trump and Pruitt simply deny) but which peer-reviewed studies show made recent Hurricane Harvey and other storms more powerful, and which have already cost taxpayers in $120 billion for calendar year 2017 alone. 

This combination of direct personal corruption and undermining of environmental protections with huge costs of public health seems almost calculated to offend moderate voters Republicans needs to hang on to power. The attack ads will write themselves.

Indeed, many Democratic strategists seems to hope Trump keeps Pruitt in place so that he can be steadily featured both in campaign ads in purple states and districts and in newspaper headlines.

Some on the left have also argued that replacing Pruitt is actually not what Democrats want, since Deputy EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler would be likely to implement the same policies as Pruitt but without the political baggage. 

But that not may not be the case. Wheeler seems far more capable than Pruitt of negotiating a deal with California on fuel economy that would keep standards rising and save motorists thousands in gasoline costs.

Moreover, he might realize that simply attempting repeal of the Clean Power Plan will lead to losses in court and propose an alternative that may have some moderate value in limiting emissions. Even so, Wheeler would continue the overall direction of Pruitt. 

On its face, Pruitt’s reckless spending of taxpayer dollars and ethical conflicts seems to undermine Trump's claim to be "draining the swamp." It may be that Pruitt has already become a direct and personal liability to the president. No wonder Rudy Giuliani and others are spinning congressional control as determining the fate of the presidency.

Could it be that the president wants to keep Pruitt around so that Pruitt’s scandals deflect attention away from those directly surrounding Trump himself? 

Stranger things have happened under this president. If so, the president and the rest of the GOP are playing another risky game of Russian roulette, indeed. 

Paul Bledsoe is a strategic advisor and energy fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. He served in the Clinton administration as the director of communications for the White House Climate Change Task Force and on the staff of the Senate Finance Committee.