After String Of Scandals, Pruitt Is Out

Jul 5, 2018
Originally published on July 23, 2018 2:02 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Scott Pruitt is out as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. True to form, President Trump announced the news this afternoon with a tweet. This follows months of speculation and a growing list of alleged ethical lapses. NPR's Nathan Rott joins us to talk through what happened and what this means for the EPA going forward. Hi, Nate.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey.

CHANG: So the president and the White House have been largely supportive of Pruitt up until now. What happened? Why the resignation now?

ROTT: Well, that's true. I mean, even in announcing the resignation, Trump made a point to praise Pruitt for the, quote, "outstanding job," unquote, he's done at the agency. But we should say, you know, the White House, Congress, government watchdogs had all been investigating this long, you know, seemingly ever-growing list of alleged ethical lapses by the administrator. And Pruitt in his resignation letter to the president said those, quote, "unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us."

CHANG: And by attacks, I'm assuming he means that list of scandals. Can you walk us through all the scandals that have plagued his tenure?

ROTT: (Laughter) I don't think we have time.

CHANG: (Laughter).

ROTT: It's a little hard to find a place to start honestly. There are questions about Pruitt's close ties to industries before he was even confirmed as EPA's administrator, and that - it seems that that followed him to D.C. At EPA, Pruitt was accused of taking a sweetheart housing deal near Capitol Hill where he rented from a lobbyist who had business before his agency. Here he is defending that in an interview on Fox last spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT PRUITT: When you look at the issue and the facts, which most people don't - but when you look at the facts of what I leased and what I paid for, it is absolutely 100 percent ethical, and it was signed off and is legal.

ROTT: Still that episode is being investigated by the agency's inspector general and Congress. Pruitt was also criticized for taking expensive first-class flights, for misspending taxpayer money on a 24-hour security detail and a $43,000 soundproof phonebooth.

CHANG: I remember that one, yep (laughter).

ROTT: Yep. He allegedly hid meetings with industry heads, tried to circumvent public records laws and asked staffers to do personal work for him, including trying to get his wife a job on their taxpayer-paid time.

CHANG: All right, well, let's turn now and talk a little bit about the legacy he'll be leaving behind at the EPA. How would you characterize that?

ROTT: Well, from a policy perspective, I think that Scott Pruitt is going to be very happy with the legacy that he left behind. He started efforts to undo a number of environmental policies that Trump railed against during his campaign, changes that oil and gas companies in many conservative parts of the country frankly wanted to see. He decreased environmental enforcement, sped up environmental reviews, rolled back what he called overly burdensome regulations to address air and water pollution.

But there is a huge caveat that we need to mention here, which is that a lot of these rollbacks that Pruitt started, this deregulatory agenda is still very much in its infancy. Getting rid of environmental rules and regulations or replacing them as he's looking to do in a few cases is a very, very long process. So a lot of that legacy question is still very much in flux.

CHANG: Well, what happens to those rollbacks now that he's gone? Do they continue on without him, or is there question about it?

ROTT: It's still very much the expectation they will continue on. Andrew Wheeler, who Trump says is taking over the agency on Monday, is very much in line with Pruitt's deregulatory agenda. He spent much of his career calling for less regulatory oversight at the agency. He was an aide to Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and he had other political roles. Most recently he represented the interests of some of the largest fossil fuel companies in the U.S. as a lobbyist. And that experience on Capitol Hill with industry means frankly that Wheeler knows how the EPA in D.C. works arguably better than Pruitt ever did.

CHANG: OK.

ROTT: He knows the politics around the agency, the mechanics and all that. So I think everyone, including the president, is expecting him to continue down the path that Pruitt started, presumably without all of that unwanted baggage.

CHANG: All right, that's NPR's Nate Rott. Thank you.

ROTT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.