Politics

Why Are Republicans Defending Scott Pruitt?

His ouster would make it easier to deregulate pretty much everything.

Scott Pruitt.
Scott Pruitt.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images.

Scott Pruitt had one job. He’s done it well. As administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Pruitt was tasked with dismantling every environmental regulation imposed by the Obama administration. Alas, he’s also done so much more. Pruitt hasn’t been able to resist exploiting the perks of his power, allegedly renting a room from an energy lobbyist under market value, spending an exorbitant amount of public money on lavish travel, improperly giving big raises to political appointees, replacing security guards who would not indulge his whims, and demoting officials who questioned his waste of public funds. And the list goes on, and gets longer by the day.

Pruitt’s apologists are not disturbed by these eye-popping ethics scandals. Instead, they’ve settled on a rather extraordinary narrative: that the journalists who’ve uncovered his misdeeds did so because they oppose his agenda. The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway tweeted that the “media & other resistance leaders” targeted Pruitt because he is “easily the most effective” Trump functionary. She then wrote an article attacking the Washington Post for its “coordinated hit” on Pruitt. The Wall Street Journal editorial board also published a piece asserting that “bureaucrats, interest groups and the press” are “creating smoke about [Pruitt’s] spending and ethics to get him fired.” Hemingway, the Post, and Pruitt’s few defenders in Congress urged President Donald Trump to ignore the scandals and keep the EPA administrator in office so he can continue deregulating the environment.

This narrative is bizarre not because it suggests that Trump should ignore Pruitt’s corruption to own the libs—that sentiment is to be expected from the increasingly trollish anti-anti-Trump right. Rather, it’s strange because it’s so obviously counterproductive to these conservatives’ own priorities. Pruitt’s effectiveness has been vastly overstated, and his work at the EPA is entirely unexceptional. Any Republican apparatchik can and would do precisely what Pruitt has done, which does not require much effort or expertise. If Pruitt manages to cling to his office, he’ll serve out his tenure politically weakened and mired in controversy. Trump would do better to cut bait and install a less flagrantly unscrupulous bureaucrat in Pruitt’s place. The press will move on, and whoever gets picked to run the EPA will get to deregulate whatever the administration wants to deregulate.

Why have Republicans convinced themselves that Pruitt is something special? The cult around him arose during his six-year tenure as Oklahoma attorney general. Pruitt coasted to victory on campaign contributions from Koch Industries and ConocoPhillips, an oil and gas company. Once in office, he promptly did the bidding of the energy lobbyists who helped to install him, abolishing the Environmental Protection Unit and creating a “Federalism Unit.” The chief purpose of this new bureau was to sue the Obama administration to block new regulations. Its name is something of a misnomer, because Pruitt took an inconsistent view on states’ rights: While he argued for Oklahoma’s ability to pollute without federal interference, he also sued California to block its animal welfare policies and filed suit against Colorado to block its legalization of marijuana.

Pruitt mostly focused his efforts on the Affordable Care Act and the EPA. He filed 14 lawsuits to block the administration’s protections for air, wildlife, and water; industry players that might suffer from the new rules were parties to all but one of these cases. Pruitt was entirely shameless about doing the energy industry’s bidding and using state resources to help the lobbyists who put him in office. Most of his suits ultimately failed, but he did persuade the Supreme Court to block the Clean Power Plan, a policy he now plans to formally revoke.

While that might sound impressive, the truth is that if Pruitt weren’t doing this work, somebody else would be. In fact, they already were: Pruitt’s suits were regularly joined by a large coalition of Republican state attorneys general, who were happy to contribute to the deregulatory cause. Former Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and his successor Ken Paxton were actually much more effective at strategically litigating against Obama’s proposals. Their offices had more time, money, and personnel to devote to these fights than Pruitt’s. And in any event, oil and gas lawyers wound up doing most of the heavy lifting behind the scenes. Pruitt was the face of the legal fight, but energy lawyers and lobbyists were the driving force behind it.

As soon as he arrived at the EPA, Pruitt began revoking as many Obama-era policies as he could. He overturned rules banning harmful pesticides and the dumping of mining debris into local streams, repealed a ban on offshore drilling, suspended regulations limiting methane emissions on public lands, and gutted regulations to reduce haze in national parks and increase forest-restoration projects. He has repealed, suspended, or rewritten multiple limitations on carbon emissions and plans to scrap fuel standards that made cars more energy efficient. And he is “reconsidering” a rule that restricts power plants’ ability to dump lead, arsenic, and mercury in public waterways.

Not a single one of these reversals was especially difficult to enact. Pruitt simply examined each of the Obama administration’s environmental initiatives and jettisoned them under some flimsy pretext. Unlike Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Pruitt can’t really strike out with his own proactive agenda; his job is merely to repeal, not replace. Environmental groups and progressive Democrats have occasionally cried foul, but Pruitt has faced no serious impediments. Congressional Republicans have, until very recently, almost universally supported him and helped out where they could. Pruitt didn’t need any special knowledge or experience or connections to scrap Obama’s environmental legacy. All that was required was a pen and a phone.

Pruitt only began to face significant pushback after his extracurricular activities came to light. We now know that he is deeply paranoid, demanding 24/7 protection from 30 bodyguards while requesting a soundproof “security booth” and a bulletproof desk. He’s arrogant, too, and vindictive: He reportedly violated protocol by using lights and sirens to get to dinner faster, then reassigned agents who questioned his decision.

Pruitt is, in short, a very weird guy, one whose idiosyncrasies present obvious political liabilities. Democrats have thus far been largely unsuccessful in rallying their base to challenge Pruitt’s policy views. Now that his bad behavior has come to light, it will be much easier to sell the idea that the EPA administrator must be thwarted.

Deregulation thrives in obscurity, and Pruitt’s quiet attack on environmental rules flourished because so few people were paying attention. They sure are now. While that’s unfortunate for Republicans, this problem has an obvious resolution: Trump should sack Pruitt and replace him with literally any uncontroversial Republican administrator who hews to the party line on regulations. Pruitt’s replacement can pick up right where he left off, safely out of the spotlight. But until the GOP realizes how little value Pruitt really adds, they’re stuck with a functionary whose ethical breaches will drag down the party’s entire agenda.

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Mark Joseph Stern covers courts and the law for Slate.