Why did it take so long for Trump to drain the swamp of Pruitt?

President Trump’s handling of Scott Pruitt’s ethics fiasco highlights his failures as a manager and leader. By not immediately firing Pruitt once multiple ethics allegations against the former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator came to light, Trump rendered meaningless his “drain the swamp” campaign slogan, damaged his anti-regulatory environmental agenda for EPA, and indelibly imprinted his administration with a scarlet “C” for corruption.

Trump undercut his own ethics message by failing to hold Pruitt accountable for obvious transgressions beginning with revelations that Pruitt had entered into a below-market ($50-a-night) lodging accommodation with the spouse of a registered lobbyist. Because both the lobbyist and his law firm apparently had business before EPA, the unorthodox lease arrangement with a “prohibited source” not only likely violates applicable ethics standards, it further compromised Pruitt’s integrity as an impartial decisionmaker with respect to EPA’s efforts to repeal the Clean Power Plan as part of its anti-regulatory agenda. 

{mosads}Most presidents, like agency heads and corporate leaders, have recognized that power creates the opportunity for abuse of authority. By necessity a president must act to prevent this conduct by establishing a strong ethical “tone from the top” and by addressing misconduct quickly and decisively before it undermines the integrity of federal government programs and operations.


Yet, Trump’s inaction allowed a seemingly endless stream of charges to unfurl against Pruitt that went unaddressed for months. Pruitt reportedly misused his staff to look for a new rental property and shop for a used Trump hotel mattress, and improperly asked his security detail to pick up dry cleaning and help him search for Ritz Carlton moisturizing lotion. He asked his scheduler to make inquiries about a Chick-fil-A franchise opportunity for his spouse and pressured his policy chief to help find his wife a job with a six-figure salary. He arranged for his spouse to get work with the Judicial Crisis Network through his contacts with the head of the Federalist Society, who accompanied him on an official trip to the Vatican, and with Concordia, when Pruitt had an official speaking engagement. 

He apparently squandered appropriated funds by flying first class, military and privately chartered aircraft, purchasing a $43,000 soundproof phone booth and hiring a security detail more than three times the size of his predecessor, who accompanied him on family trips to Disneyland and sporting events. He allegedly obtained coveted tickets to football and basketball events on relatively favorable terms and circumvented the White House clearance process by giving staff raises under a special hiring authority.

Most seriously of all, at least five of his staff may have been retaliated against by being placed on leave, reassigned or demoted when they questioned some of his expenditures. In another case, a senior scheduler reportedly was fired after apparently objecting to the deletion of certain appointments from his official calendar because of possible violations of federal records laws.

If true, the allegations would have deprived the American people of the honest services expected of public servants, and likely violated conflict of interest, federal records and anti-retaliation laws. The volume and seriousness of the allegations dictate that the 16 investigations into Pruitt’s misconduct by the inspector general, the office of special counsel and any other offices continue to completion. If there has been an unlawful use of taxpayer money or conflicts of interest, these matters should be referred to the Department of Justice for possible civil action or criminal prosecution. 

Trump not only failed to address Pruitt’s brazen misconduct for months, when he ultimately accepted his resignation he tweeted that Pruitt had done an “outstanding job.” This was the exact wrong message, but hardly a surprise given Trump’s decision to retain his own outside business interests, which have left him vulnerable to charges of self dealing, violating the Emolument clauses of the Constitution, and brazen disregard for anti-nepotism laws.

Having accepted Pruitt’s resignation, Trump now must rely on Pruitt’s successor former Murray Energy coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to pick up the ethics fragments at EPA. While Wheeler has taken some initial steps to change the tone at the agency, it will be important to ascertain whether he was aware of Pruitt’s activities and whether he took any action to prevent them. As a career lobbyist, it is also hard to fathom how Wheeler can fully set aside his industry ties to act impartially in the public interest. If he fails to do so, he too may bear the markings of a scarlet “C. 

Virginia Canter is chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former White House ethics counsel for Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and former Treasury ethics counsel during the George W. Bush administration.

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump drain the swamp EPA Ethics Leadership Scott Pruitt Virginia Canter

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