Courtesy of The New Yorker Magazine
Scott Pruitt’s resignation as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, on Thursday, offered reassurance—of the kind we could use right now—that certain forces of accountability are still in effect in Donald Trump’s Washington.
True, it took months of revelations about Pruitt’s ethical blunders to push him out—the first-class travel at the taxpayers’ expense, the forty-three-thousand-dollar secured phone booth and the unprecedented twenty-four-hour security detail he demanded, the schedule dominated by meeting after meeting with fossil-fuel interests, the weird tasks given to his staff, such as driving him to secure his favored Ritz-Carlton moisturizer. And it’s not that Trump himself held Pruitt accountable, or that Pruitt admitted any wrongdoing as he gave up his job. Trump tweeted on Thursday, “Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this.” Pruitt’s letter of resignation—a peculiar document, which cites his belief that “God’s providence” made Trump President, and which repeatedly invokes the “blessing” of serving in his Administration—offers no apology for his actions, either. Pruitt decided to step down, he explains, because “the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us.”
The accountability instead came from the journalists and environmentalists who have diligently reported on and monitored the E.P.A. in the face of increasing hostility (an E.P.A. spokesperson recently called a reporter looking into the resignation of a top Pruitt aide “a piece of trash”), and from the bureaucrats in the Government Accountability Office who have been investigating Pruitt. Without these watchdogs, we’d know very little about Pruitt’s misdeeds, and he would still be enjoying the blessing of working for Trump. Elizabeth Southerland, a former senior E.P.A. official who resigned last July after thirty years at the agency, told me in an e-mail Thursday afternoon that she had already “heard from many current and former EPA scientists who are all deeply relieved that the most corrupt Administrator we have ever known is finally gone.”
Yet the fact remains that the worst aspect of Pruitt’s tenure was not the ethical lapses—some niggling, some egregious—that ultimately got him into trouble. The worst part was Pruitt’s policies: his casting of doubt on climate science; his support for Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; and his pursuit of the rollback of important regulations, including auto-emissions standards and federal bans on the dumping of highly toxic coal ash next to waterways. Pruitt’s head-scratching personal behavior as a boss overshadowed much more consequential actions, such as the reduction of criminal-enforcement actions against polluters; an investigation released last month by the nonprofit group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility showed these have fallen to their lowest level in thirty years.
If Pruitt got a little too self-indulgent in Washington (even the conservative pundit Laura Ingraham, one of the select group of fewer than fifty people Trump follows on Twitter, tweeted earlier this week, “Pruitt is the swamp. Drain it”), that was too bad, because otherwise, as Trump’s words of praise indicated, he was doing a heck of a job.
Andrew Wheeler, Pruitt’s erstwhile deputy, who will now become the E.P.A.’s acting administrator, is a former coal-industry lobbyist who represented the coal magnate and Trump backer Robert Murray in opposing Obama-era environmental regulations. He also once served as an aide to Senator James Inhofe, of Oklahoma, a man who once brought a snowball to the floor of the Senate to show that the Earth couldn’t be getting warmer.
Last year, as a lobbyist with the firm FaegreBD Consulting, Wheeler was part of what the Washington Post called “a concerted lobbying campaign” on behalf of a company called Energy Fuels Resources, which wanted to reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument, in Utah, because it was seeking easier access to uranium deposits in the area. In December, Trump announced that he was shrinking Bears Ears by eighty-five per cent.
Pruitt came to the E.P.A. as an anti-government Washington outsider, who had made his whole career in Oklahoma politics, but Wheeler began his career working at the E.P.A., in the early nineteen-nineties, and he has stayed in Washington since. He surely knows the inner workings of the agency better than Pruitt did, and may be savvier at crafting deregulation that sticks. (Several of Pruitt’s attempted rules rollbacks have been held up in the courts.)