There is no member of the Trump administration’s Cabinet, with the possible exception of Jeff Sessions, who has proved more controversial than Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt. While the Oklahoman has been trying to weaken environmental protections and roll back Obama-era rules and regulations, he has embroiled himself in numerous scandals—many of which, on their own, would have surely led to his dismissal in previous administrations. Pruitt has racked up large travel expenses, has taken gifts from wealthy donors who have business before the EPA, and had a soundproof booth installed in his office—one of the many times he has resorted to extreme secrecy, but this time ruled illegal by the Government Accountability Office. And yet, presumably because of his close relationship with President Donald Trump, he soldiers on. (There are more scandals, but this paragraph would be three times as long if I listed them all.)
Most of the reporting on Pruitt has come from the New York Times and the Washington Post, and one of the Times’ main reporters on the Pruitt beat is Eric Lipton, a Pulitzer Prize winner who has been at the paper for almost two decades. I recently spoke by phone with Lipton to get a sense of the bigger picture while new scandal details continue to emerge. (In between reaching out the Lipton and conducting the interview, he and his colleagues published this story.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether Pruitt has been successful in pursuing his agenda, why even Pruitt’s allies may be souring on him, and how a newspaper like the Times decides how to balance covering policy vs. scandal.
Isaac Chotiner: Is there anything about reporting on the EPA and Scott Pruitt that’s been different from other types of investigative reporting you’ve done?
Eric Lipton: I think that the scale of impact is pretty extraordinary, with federal regulatory measures that will impact every single person in the United States, when it comes to things like pesticides and toxic chemicals and air pollution and water pollution. The consequences of it are so enormous.
Another thing that’s different is that usually you’re looking at how outsider parties are influencing the regulatory process in the federal government. And now you have people within the government themselves who have just left the industry at the EPA. Understanding their careers and clients, and what it was they were advocating [for] and how it matches up with actions they’re now taking in positions of authority just adds to the burden of reporting.
If you were reporting on the way in which outside forces were impacting the policymaking of a Cabinet agency, would you go about it a different way than how you are with Pruitt and the EPA?
During the Obama administration, I was looking at how the Sierra Club and other environmental groups were influencing the Obama administration. The difference in that case is that the outside parties that they were collaborating with were nonprofits that had missions that they at least thought were in the public interest as opposed to the profit-making interests of individual corporate entities. During the debate over the Waters of the United States clean water rule, I wrote a story about how the Obama administration had collaborated or conspired with some environmental groups to try to influence the public comments on that rule. And ultimately there was an investigation by the GAO, which concluded that they had in fact done what is called “covert propaganda” to try to undermine the regulatory process.
Would you call Scott Pruitt an ideologue? Is that a good prism through which to understand him?
At his core, I think that he believes in a limited role of the federal government and kind of the federalist argument. And much of what he does sort of extends from there, and if you consider that an ideology, then yes, you could call him an ideologue.
Do you think the role he’s played as the head of the EPA and the way he’s gone about his business there is unique or unprecedented for the head of a Cabinet agency?
Unprecedented is probably too great of a word, but it is sort of startling the extent to which he has tasked agency employees to handle matters that relate to his personal benefit, or his family’s personal benefit. Regardless of what his environmental views are, or his regulatory views are, there’s no question the emails show that his staff has been engaged in using agency resources to pursue things that directly related to his own personal benefit, be it employment for his wife, or searching for an apartment for him, or helping his daughter get an internship, or trying to get a mattress from a Trump hotel.
Each of those things we know through interviews or mostly through emails, [and] just seem to be pretty clear-cut violations of federal rules regarding prohibition on using government resources for personal benefit. And those are ongoing investigations, but the extent to which he has done that is very unusual and it’s surprising for a guy that is as smart as Pruitt, that he would engage in such activity, because it only leaves him vulnerable to criticism and perhaps to, ultimately, dismissal.
You say he’s smart, and yet he’s doing this, so how do you understand it? Is it just that he still seems to have the confidence of the president?
I can’t totally explain it because it doesn’t make sense to me in someone who is as ambitious as he is, and has such clear intentions to run for higher office. Why would someone engage in activities that are relatively trivial in terms of the financial benefit they would bring to him given the consequences for his future political prospects? I just have a hard time making sense of it, given that I do know he’s quite a smart person. I’ve spent time talking to Scott Pruitt and was quite impressed with his knowledge of environmental regulations and his ability to make very clear and compelling arguments as to why he’s taking the positions that he does. You may disagree with him, but he actually can articulate the argument pretty well.
In the Times and the Post stories about Pruitt, one of the themes that runs through a couple of them is that at one level he’s pursuing this anti-regulatory agenda and has had some success with it, but at another level there’s some concern even among some Trump administration allies that he’s moving too quickly and therefore some of these things may not hold up in court. How well do you think he’s going about pursuing his own agenda?
I think they’ve been sloppy. I think part of it relates to their desire to move quickly and to gain the accolades from both Trump and the conservative movement for the pace at which they’re rolling back the Obama regulatory legacy. And in the process of that they’ve been so determined to move quickly that they have failed to follow law in a number of instances. And then when the environmental community has immediately and consistently gone to federal court to challenge those acts, they have found their efforts have been suspended and they have to start over again.
This happened with the methane rule that the EPA suspended. It’s quite consequential that they said that oil and gas companies no longer had to comply with an EPA regulation to try to reduce the emissions of methane gas. It’s a very high, very potent climate change contributor and the oil and gas industry hated the rule and Pruitt quickly went in and suspended it, but without going through the proper steps that you need. And I think that really, to some extent I’ve heard this from the White House itself, that it was really a matter of their determination to put some points on the board, that they were sloppy in how they did it. I think to some extent they can still go about repealing or suspending these rules even if they were knocked down the first time, but they now have to go through the formal and appropriate regulatory process to do that. It takes longer, but it doesn’t prevent them from doing it in an actually legal way the second time around.
There have been a number of stories in the Times and the Post where my first instinct on reading them was, “Oh, Pruitt’s going to have to resign” or “Pruitt’s going to be fired.” Given that that has not been the case, I’m wondering if that has made it hard to get people to talk, because I think one of the reasons a lot people often talk is because they feel like they’ll tell something to a reporter and the hope will be that they’ll get a policy change or get someone fired or something will go in the direction they think is best for their agency or whatever. Given that that’s not happening, do you think that’s going to make reporting on the EPA more difficult in the future?
No, I don’t think that’s the case. I think we’re in a very unusual era in terms of the consequences of ethical failings, in terms of whether or not people need to leave their posts as a result of them, and it relates to the presidency in general. The only person that is going to decide the fate of Pruitt is the president himself or Pruitt himself. They’re the only two decision-makers that really matter here, and predicting the outcomes involving those two individuals is sort of impossible because it doesn’t follow the usual cause and effect that we’re used to in Washington, so those standards are sort of irrelevant at the moment.
But in terms of the willingness of people to talk, the thing that’s been sort of surprising and interesting to me is that, as time has gone on and there are more and more people that have left the EPA, I’m hearing more disgust and frustration from people who came to Washington with him and feel as if they’re almost roadkill. And their reputations have been harmed and they’ve suffered consequences whereas Pruitt is still there.
And so you not only have the folks that the Trump folks call “the Resistance,” who are the career people at the agency that were upset from the start. But now you have a fair number of people from the political appointees, most prominently Kevin Chmielewski, who was a Trump guy who worked at the EPA as deputy chief of staff for operations. And there are others beyond Kevin, but Kevin is the most public, who really feel like they have been harmed because they spoke up and were repulsed by some of the things they observed. And so, in fact, what I’m finding is that there are more people like that who are willing to talk and who are amazed that Pruitt has continued to be in place even though these different instances occur on an almost daily or weekly basis of ethical failings that would normally have taken out a Cabinet member in one or two instances.
Was Rudy Giuliani your first assignment for the Times?
Yeah, basically. 1999. When I started at the Times, Giuliani was in his second term and I was a City Hall reporter. I was based in City Hall and covered Giuliani.
How different is the Rudy Giuliani you see on TV today from the man you covered, and are you sort of surprised at the turn he’s taken?
No, not at all, actually. It’s quite consistent with the Giuliani that I observed and got to know very well. It’s a guy who is insistent and determined and creates his own version of reality and is unwilling to bend on that version of reality no matter what the facts are. That was often the case in covering him, including during Sept. 11, when I wrote a story that suggested that in fact many fewer people had died in the attack on the World Trade Center towers. And he was so angry at me and challenging my facts when in fact it turned out that I was right and he was wrong. I see him as being quite consistent since I’ve known him.
Eric, thank you so much.
Yeah. Let’s just think about what else. What is your goal with this interview? I just want understand a little bit more.
Just to kind of give readers a Q&A about how you’ve been reporting.
One of the things we haven’t discussed is the challenge, for us institutionally, between writing about the regulatory things that Pruitt is doing and all of the ethical issues that have emerged. It’s very hard to be simultaneously covering both. And to some extent the regulatory changes having to with air pollution, water pollution, chemicals, they’re actually more consequential for the American public, but the readers are also interested in these ethical things. So, we have to constantly make decisions institutionally about how do you divide up your resources.
What have you settled on?
We’re trying to do both, but it’s actually quite hard to do both. The ethics story is so nonstop and so competitive, it’s a very competitive story. You have more news outlets writing about it than about environmental policy because it’s sexier. It’s sort of like the Mueller investigation, whereas the environmental policy stuff is more complicated and nuanced. That’s the hardest part about this, because really the thing that matters the most is: What are the toxic chemicals in the paint stripper that you got at your Home Depot or Lowes that might kill you and how are they changing the regulations on those things?
In the short term that is the most important, or even in the medium term. But, in the long term, having a government with accountable public servants who feel like they can’t do things that violate the rules and regulations of the department they serve is equally important, right?
They’re both important. We’re covering both. It’s just that they are two quite different stories. Sometimes they come together as a story, but usually they’re sort of distinct and that’s probably the hardest part about covering the Trump EPA.