Michael Steele: If Trump wants to drain the swamp, Pruitt must go

Michael Steele: If Trump wants to drain the swamp, Pruitt must go
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In a crowded field of career politicians — whom Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE said were all beholden to a rigged system of paybacks and favors — the billionaire stood alone as a Washington outsider, promising to give the government back to the people.

Trump was so rich, his pitch went, that he didn’t owe anything to any political party or special interest and, therefore, would be loyal to the American people. He promised to “drain the swamp” and it resonated. Many Americans — especially those in the middle of the country — who had long felt overlooked or discarded by Washington, were energized by Donald Trump’s candidacy and propelled him to an historically improbable victory.

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But last week, many Trump supporters were left scratching their heads as things started looking awfully swampy at the Environmental Protection Agency. Over the course of a few days, we learned that married lobbyists from Oklahoma had supplied administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: EPA watchdog says agency failed to properly monitor asbestos at schools| Watchdog won’t investigate former Superfund head’s qualifications| Florence causes toxic coal ash spill in North Carolina White House officials discussing potential replacements for FEMA chief: report Trump’s EPA chooses coal over the American people MORE a sweetheart deal on a Capitol Hill apartment even as one of them had business before the EPA.

 

We also learned that EPA gave big pay increases to two of Pruitt’s favorite young staffers from Oklahoma even after the White House had opposed doing so.

Preceding this week’s revelations, administrator Pruitt has been widely criticized for many questionable decisions including: using costly private jets to fly him and staff; travelling first-class when cheaper seats were available on commercial jets; demanding his security use flashing lights and sirens on his government vehicle to bypass traffic; asking to be driven in a bullet proof vehicle with run-flat tires; installing  a special privacy phone booth in his office at a cost of over $40,000 and asking for $70,000 for two fancy desks — one of which was bullet-proof. More disconcerting, is that the agency may have taken punitive actions against EPA employees who expressed concerns about the ethics and legality of these and other Pruitt’s questionable decisions.

There is no way around it: these revelations about the EPA administrator paint a picture of a Cabinet official who is out of touch with his responsibilities as a public servant; who has little consideration for the judicious use of taxpayer dollars; and, who has no sense of the impropriety within his agency. Worse yet, now any action taken by the EPA is potentially tainted by these ethics scandals.

For example, news broke last week that more than one month ago, the EPA began issuing waivers — in secret — to some of the largest petroleum refiners around the country, allowing them to ignore rules governing the blending of renewable biofuels into the nation’s transportation fuel supply. 

The waivers, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, are being given to many of the nation’s largest refiners under the pretense that those refiners are experiencing “economic hardship” but many of those same refiners are posting massive profits.

A refiner reportedly saved over $50 million dollars with the waiver while posting annual profits of $1.5 billion last year. But, Mr. Pruitt’s EPA has not released any information about the waivers, who authorized them, or the process used to issue them. One refiner said: “the EPA was handing out those exemptions like trick or treat candy. Anyone with a brain submitted an application.”

As Oklahoma Attorney General, Pruitt received over $300,000 in political donations from the oil and gas sector. Carl IcahnCarl Celian IcahnIcahn warns against Cigna-Express Scripts merger Pruitt’s renewable fuel attacks cost him GOP support in Congress Overnight Energy: Lawyer who coined 'lock her up' to get EPA post | Refinery owned by ex-Trump adviser gets biofuels waiver | Lawmakers press Pruitt on emissions standards MORE, who principally owns one of the refineries which received one of the waivers, reportedly urged the president to consider Scott Pruitt for the head of the EPA.

So, is it any wonder that American farmers and domestic biofuels producers who are being hurt by this EPA decision, are now questioning the integrity of this policy change? After all, Scott Pruitt’s overly generous landlord is also a lobbyist who represents petroleum interests.

When you take the oath of office to lead a federal agency like EPA, you swear that your actions will be in the best interest of the American people. If you erode that trust, like Scott Pruitt has through a series of bad decisions and self-interested actions, you can no longer be an effective administrator of the law.

In October 2016, then-candidate Trump tweeted his intention to “Make Our Government honest Again” but first he would have to “drain the swamp”. Well, if the President meant what he said and we are to take him seriously, then it is time for Scott Pruitt to leave the EPA. Besides being good politics for the White House, it is in the best interest of ensuring the public’s confidence in the Trump administration and restoring confidence in the idea of public service.

Michael Steele is the former Republican National Committee chairman and former lieutenant governor of Maryland.