After months of scandal and controversy, including multiple ethics investigations into his personal spending and connections to the energy industry, Scott Pruitt has resigned as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt used his office for the pettiest of graft, betraying the public trust as a matter of course. He’s arguably the most corrupt Cabinet officer in modern American history, with few rivals before the era of Teapot Dome. If President Trump himself weren’t indifferent to corruption and graft—or if Republican lawmakers were interested in holding the administration accountable for anything—Pruitt would have long since been removed.
A former Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt was a bona fide advocate for fossil fuel interests, using his position to discard fuel-efficiency standards, dismantle Obama-era environmental regulations, and clear the way for a bevy of polluters, from oil drillers in Utah to coal barons in Kentucky. He sidelined a national study of water pollution, sought to exclude mainstream science from EPA consideration under the guise of “transparency,” and pushed President Trump to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate agreement. And he contradicted decades of research, including work from the EPA itself, when he told energy executives that carbon dioxide was not a “primary contributor” to climate change.
Pruitt was not especially effective—neither he nor his aides spent serious time on the work necessary to truly cut through the EPA’s web of policies and regulations. “Pruitt has taken aim at just about every major Obama-era EPA rule,” wrote Politico’s Michael Grunwald in a look at Pruitt’s record in the spring. “But so far he’s only managed to delay a few rules that hadn’t yet taken effect.” Pruitt has essentially maintained the environmental status quo. Still, the reality of climate change makes that inaction a destructive choice.
But Pruitt isn’t gone because he devoted his agency to the interests of industry. He’s gone because, in a corrupt administration where unethical behavior is common, he was the most obvious—and, at times, most outlandish—practitioner of that corruption and unethical behavior.
Pruitt’s list of scandals is extensive and almost unbelievable. He ordered unauthorized raises for two aides and then denied knowledge of the decision. He spent $3 million of taxpayer funds on an unprecedentedly large security detail that followed him everywhere, from football games to vacations at Disneyland. He had biometric locks installed on his office doors and a $43,000 private phone booth in his office. Citing (nonexistent) threats to his safety, he spent more than $160,000 on first-class and chartered flights across the United States as well as luxury accommodations for international travel. He took gifts from lobbyists and a billionaire coal executive. He tasked administrative aides with personal tasks, like picking up snacks, getting a mattress from the Trump International Hotel in Washington, and finding his wife a six-figure job. He also tried to get his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise. He had his staffers pay for his expenses on their personal credit cards. He rented a room from a fossil fuel lobbyist for $50 a night, well below the market rate for hotels in D.C, and then met with that lobbyist for official business.
Pruitt “offered” his resignation, but that’s a formality. In truth, he was forced out; the pressure and scrutiny from his scandals were too much for President Trump and Republicans to bear as they head into a difficult election cycle. Far from contrite, Pruitt’s resignation letter is unapologetic. “It is extremely difficult for me to cease serving you in this role first because I count it a blessing to be serving you in any capacity, but also, because of the transformative work that is occurring,” he wrote. “However, the unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us.”
Citizenship carries obligations, and citizens who enter into the public sphere take on particular responsibilities. We ask them to act with honor and integrity, to do best by the people they are selected to serve. From his career in Oklahoma to his time in Washington, it’s clear Pruitt rejects this. But so does the president, and his children. And a number of other Cabinet officers who use their positions for self-dealing.
The story of Scott Pruitt isn’t just about his attacks on the environment or his corruption or his obvious political ambitions—he reportedly lobbied President Trump to fire Jeff Sessions and appoint him attorney general—it’s about the administration’s larger hostility to public service, its disdain for common interest, and its contempt for the collective good. Pruitt is just one example among many, enabled and even encouraged by a political movement so hostile to government that it allows the president and top officials to use public institutions for personal gain.
“If we do not provide against corruption, our government will soon be at an end,” said George Mason at the start of the Constitutional Convention. Let’s hope that wasn’t a prophecy.
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