Since taking office as President Donald Trump’s first and so far only EPA chief, Pruitt has distinguished himself on two fronts: Obviously, he’s labored to annul many of the agency’s existing regulations. But even more obviously, he has swept giant snowdrifts of unflattering news about his grasping behavior into the press.
Day after day, month after month, Pruitt feeds the maw of the bad publicity machine with his overreach and overexposure. In ordinary times, his outrages would have earned him a dismissal and he would have joined the scores of high-level Trump functionaries who’ve been fired or forced to resign. Yet he endures. Just a month ago, he went to Capitol Hill for interrogation and he took more punches than Jake LaMotta did in his bloody 1951 fight against Sugar Ray Robinson, but he did not fall.
Not that Pruitt doesn’t make a superb punching bag. He’s taken deserved ridicule for deciding that the basic Chevrolet Tahoe that conveyed the previous EPA administrator wasn’t sufficient and needed replacement with the larger and fancier Chevrolet Suburban. And not just the LT model but the higher-end LS model, plus bulletproof vests for its leather seats. So enthroned, Pruitt reportedly “urged” his security detail to run the permanent blockade that is Washington traffic by activating the vehicle’s lights and sirens as to hustle him to the airport, meetings, and his D.C. social engagements (including a trip to Le Diplomate, the fashionable French restaurant that he favors).
Pruitt’s vehicular choices seemed modest when we learned of his tastes in air flight and travel. During his first year, he flew first class regularly, shanghaied expensive military aircraft for flights, and even took chartered crafts. By one count, he spent $168,000 on air travel in one year. Where the average EPA administrator spent $1.9 million a year on security over the past eight years, he spent $3.5 million protecting himself from imaginary death threats. EPA security details accompanied him on a family vacation to Disneyland and to the Rose Bowl game. According to the Washington Post, he composed a list of a dozen countries he hoped to visit and “urged aides to help him find official reasons to travel.” He got his passport stamped in Italy and Morocco, and drew up itineraries for Australia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Panama, Poland, India, and Canada – you know, all those places were EPA has no authority.
When Tom Prince got caught using his position as secretary of Health and Human Services to run up frequent flyer miles in private planes at government expense, Trump forced him to resign in the name of draining the swamp. And yet Pruitt endures.
In need of writing supplies, did Pruitt order Pilot pens and legal pads? Nah, he contracted for fancy stationery, leather-bound notebooks, and a dozen customized silver fountain pens-emblazoned with the EPA seal-from the high-end Washington shop Tiny Jewel Box. The total price was $3,230.
Ensconced at the EPA, he had the place swept for electronic bugs and purchased biometric locks; installed a $43,000 soundproof phone booth; and spent twice what was authorized to redecorate his office (dropping about $9,600). Meanwhile, he bunked at the bargain price of $50 each night in a room at the home of the wife of an energy industry lobbyist. The New York Times reports that the lobbyist’s project was approved by the EPA. As I write, the Washington Post reports that last year he assigned an aide to help his wife, Marlyn Pruitt, to secure a Chick-fil-A franchise as a “potential business opportunity.” Oh, and he recently got caught dispatching an aide during his apartment search to buy a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel in Washington. And don’t forget his flirtation with a Hatch Act violation.
Hit me again, Pruitt all but dares his critics, which include all the good-government types as well as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club – the environmental protection industrial complex – who have been pantsing the administrator with findings from their FOIA requests. Taking him up on his dare today was Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who called him “about as swampy as you get.” Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) concurred, saying Pruitt “has betrayed the president.” (Don’t get too excited, Democrats: They are mad about ethanol.) Even White House staffers have piled on, imploring the president to dismiss his EPA chief.
How does Pruitt continue to defy the Washington furies, where lesser mortals fail every day? He’s not as scandal-resistant as he is scandal-impervious. Pruitt’s policies have made corporate America (including the Koch brothers) his ally, and according to the HuffPost, he’s wowzers with the evangelicals, too. Trump must figure that this kind of allyship will accrue to his political advantage, if not today then soon.
But he perseveres mostly because the president admires his swagger. Trump is the sort of coach who loves having a player like Pruitt who will give the bird to the other side with one middle finger and gouge them in the eye with the other. Although many of Pruitt’s regulatory “victories” are provisional, subject to re-rollback by the courts, he has assumed the posture of a winner, and Trump likes that, too. (In a constitutional monarchy like ours, keeping the king happy is important.) Like Trump, Pruitt remains defiant in the face of his loud critics, an attitude the president likes as long as it isn’t directed at him. Today, a reporter called attention to the Ernst-Grassley dissatisfaction with a question to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asking, “How is it in the face of all that we’ve learned, how is it that President Trump continues to have confidence in the EPA administrator?” Once again, Sanders deflected, saying she hadn’t had a chance to discuss the report with the president, adding, “We continue to have concerns and look into those and we’ll address them,” which was Sandersese for ‘buzz off.’
The best reason Scott Pruitt might continue to survive his scandals for months and months, though, is that his removal would change nothing. His deputy, Andrew R. Wheeler, confirmed in April, would likely get called in from the bullpen and merely continue to pitch the same regulatory game Pruitt is pitching, a likelihood the NRDC predicts. The law of averages says that Wheeler couldn’t possibly be as loud and vulgar in his grasping as Pruitt. The second best reason – and my favorite – is that the enviros would be crazy to depose Pruitt at the precise moment he has become their creamy, wide and deep publicity gravy train. In Pruitt, the environment industrial complex and the president find the perfect unity candidate.
“I fought Sugar Ray so often, I almost got diabetes,” Jake LaMotta liked to say. Send punches to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have a nasty uppercut. My Twitter feed a nifty right-cross. My RSS feed is all sucker-punch.