July 5, 2018, by Jennifer A. Dlouhy
Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt has resigned after a deluge of damaging revelations about his spending, travel, and a condo rental deal that prompted some Republican lawmakers to distance themselves and question his continued effectiveness.
President Donald Trump announced in a tweet on Thursday that he’d accepted the resignation. “Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job and I will always be thankful to him for this,” Trump said.
Pruitt chose to resign because he felt he was a distraction, and there was no “final straw,” Trump said. “It was very much up to him,” Trump later told reporters on Air Force One en route to Montana. “We’ve been talking about it for a little while.”
It’s a dramatic change of fortune for Pruitt, who was celebrated by conservatives for zealously attacking the EPA when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general. Once Pruitt arrived in Washington, he acquired a national profile for methodically moving to dismantle Obama administration regulations on climate change and air pollution.
A former coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, will take over the agency as acting administrator on Monday, Trump said, after more than two months serving as the EPA’s No. 2 official. Unlike Pruitt, Wheeler has a low-key approach, cultivated during decades of working in Washington — including a previous turn at the EPA and time on Capitol Hill serving under Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican.
Pruitt’s departure is a victory for environmentalists and good government advocates who have campaigned against the EPA administrator since his confirmation in February 2017. They cast him as an unabashed ally of corporate polluters, and assailed what they called his ethical abuses.
Environmentalists cheered Pruitt’s departure, with the Union of Concerned Scientists saying the former administrator’s ethics issues were less damaging than his policy decisions. “While he clearly violated ethical standards and bilked taxpayers, he inflicted far worse injury on American children and families,” Ken Kimmell, the organization’s president, said in a statement.
Democratic lawmakers said Pruitt should have left earlier. “Mr. Pruitt was always the wrong man to lead the EPA,” Senator Tom Carper of Delaware said in a statement. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Pruitt’s resignation “long overdue.”
Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, which had sued Pruitt’s EPA over its failure to disclose records, issued a statement that read simply: “Good.”
At least 185 Democrats and four Republicans in the House and Senate had sought Pruitt’s ouster amid allegations of ethical missteps and abuses of power, including his rental of a bedroom in a Capitol Hill condominium from a lobbyist for $50 a night for several months under unusually generous terms.
Pruitt, 50, also drew fire — and more than a dozen formal investigations — for frequent travel to his home state of Oklahoma, questionable spending decisions at the EPA, raises granted to two top aides, and accusations some employees were sidelined after challenging the administrator’s decisions.
Recent disclosures also revealed the extent to which Pruitt enlisted aides to conduct an array of personal errands, including helping him find housing in Washington, buy a second-hand mattress from the Trump International Hotel, and pursue a Chick-fil-A Inc. franchise for his wife.
At least some of the work was conducted with EPA email and during working hours, potentially violating federal ethics rules that bar federal employees from using their public office for private gain and soliciting gifts from employees.
At least five political appointees, including three longtime Pruitt allies, left the agency as allegations mounted.
The animosity Pruitt generated among liberal activists is matched by the fondness he inspired on the political right. For more than a year, that helped insulate him and gave him leverage within the White House — power he successfully used to help persuade Trump to pull the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement.
Trump stood by Pruitt for months. He defended his EPA chief in an April 7 tweet proclaiming that “Pruitt is doing a great job. The president reiterated his confidence in the administrator on May 11 and again on June 6, saying the “EPA is doing really, really well” under Pruitt’s leadership. But by June 15, the president’s support had softened, with Trump saying he was “ not happy” about some of Pruitt’s actions.
Some Republican lawmakers and business lobbyists questioned whether the steady stream of revelations was undermining Pruitt’s day-to-day work on intricate environmental policy, and limiting his room to maneuver on sensitive issues.
Republican lawmakers on both sides of a contentious debate over the U.S. biofuel mandate seized on Pruitt’s problems as leverage to try and influence EPA policy decisions in June. And prominent conservatives pushed for Pruitt’s ouster, including commentator Laura Ingraham and the National Review, which said the administrator should be replaced amid reports of questionable behavior.
In his resignation letter, Pruitt said it was “extremely difficult” to cease serving Trump, calling it “a blessing to be serving you in any capacity, but also because of the transformative work that is occurring.”
“However, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us,” Pruitt told Trump.
Pruitt defended himself against some of the allegations in congressional hearings in late April and early May, calling them “a distraction” promoted by critics who “want to attack and derail the president’s agenda.” After telling lawmakers that EPA career staff oversaw the acquisition of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth, Pruitt issued a memo putting three political appointees in charge of approving any expenditures of more than $5,000 on his behalf.
Congressional lawmakers also have been scrutinizing Pruitt’s reliance on first- and business-class airplane flights, a practice EPA officials have defended as necessary amid vulgar, aggressive encounters and escalating threats. In April, the Government Accountability Office concluded the EPA violated federal spending laws by failing to give Congress advance notification of the secure phone booth purchase.
Pruitt has been the one of the most enthusiastic crusaders in Trump’s campaign against regulations that the president said were throttling U.S. jobs. He’s been the face of the Trump administration’s efforts to reduce regulatory burdens on businesses, shrink the federal government’s footprint, and jettison Obama-era policies against climate change.
At the EPA, Pruitt began rewriting a number of rules, including a measure that critics said gave the federal government too much power to regulate waterways nationwide, and the Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama’s signature plan for combating carbon dioxide emissions from electricity.
Pruitt also has led the rewrite of EPA policies to limit what scientific studies can be used to justify agency regulations, curb settlements with conservationists and relax a decades-old air pollution policy. Under Pruitt’s watch, the EPA also has decided to revise vehicle standards and ease a rule aimed at boosting the safety of chemical facilities.
Pruitt said he was reorienting the agency toward its core mission, ensuring states played a significant role in environmental oversight and spurring the cleanup of toxic Superfund sites.
Now that work falls to Wheeler, a Washington insider whose entire professional life has been tethered to the agency, beginning in 1991, when he was hired for a non-political job focusing on toxic chemicals. Wheeler, 53, spent years working for Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee before becoming an energy and environment lobbyist at FaegreBD Consulting.
Wheeler shares many of Pruitt’s policy views. But lobbyists say his methodical, strategic approach could make it easier to advance policy changes.
It’s “doubtful this changes much of anything other than the agency will likely run smoother and generate less collateral baggage when moving major initiatives,” said Stephen Brown, a lobbyist for the refiner Andeavor.
Conservative Steve Milloy, a senior legal fellow at the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, predicted the change at the top won’t alter the EPA’s approach under Trump. “Same president. Same agenda,” he said by email. “Just a new EPA chief.”