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Scott Pruitt, Trump’s scandal-plagued EPA chief, has resigned

The resignation came in an especially damning week of revelations about his improprieties.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies about the fiscal year 2018 budget during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, June 27, 201
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned on July 5 after months of reports of corruption, malfeasance, and deceiving the public.
(Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, has resigned after his alleged ethical breaches — among them a $43,000 phone booth, a Trump mattress, and exclusive moisturizer — and violations of the law became too much for President Trump to bear.

The highest-ranking environmental official in the Trump administration submitted his resignation letter Thursday afternoon. President Trump said that Pruitt’s deputy, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, will take over the agency on Monday.

The resignation came in an especially brutal week of revelations about his improprieties.

We found out that Pruitt asked aides to book hotels for him on their own personal credit cards and didn’t reimburse the expense in at least one instance. The Washington Post also reported that Pruitt pressured aides to find a job for his wife with a salary of at least $200,000.

EPA whistleblower Kevin Chmielewski, a former deputy chief of staff, told CNN that Pruitt borrowed the mafia tactic of keeping two sets of books. The administrator deleted controversial meetings and appointments from his public calendar that were listed in the agency’s internal calendar.

“We had at one point three different schedules. One of them was one that no one else saw except three or four of us,” Chmielewski told CNN. “It was a secret ... and they would decide what to nix from the public calendar.”

Reports also emerged this week that Pruitt threw Attorney General Jeff Sessions under the bus, telling Trump to fire Sessions and hire Pruitt for the post instead. Politico reported that Pruitt hired a former political fundraiser, Elizabeth Beacham White, to oversee public record requests. According to environmental activists, she has helped slow-walk the release of incriminating documents.

Pruitt was then confronted by a Washington, DC, schoolteacher who told him to resign while he was having lunch with his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson:

This is all in addition to his long, long list of other scandals — the $43,000 phone booth, the $4.6 million security detail, the $50-a-night condo rented from a lobbyist — that have triggered more than a dozen federal audits, inquires, and investigations.

Republican lawmakers’ patience was also wearing thin. Four house Republicans openly called on Pruitt to resign. House oversight committee chair Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) mocked Pruitt’s paranoia on Fox News. (Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) decided to basically stick his fingers in his ears and go “la-la-la.”)

In the Senate, Republicans also grew frustrated. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) said Pruitt was “about as swampy as you get.” Even Pruitt’s fellow Oklahoman, Sen. James Inhofe, told Laura Ingraham that “I think something needs to happen to change that, and one of those alternatives is for him to leave that job.”

On Thursday, the New York Times reported that “the president acted after he found one particular story in recent days embarrassing:” the report that Pruitt suggested that Trump fire Sessions, so that Pruitt could run the Justice Department. “Fresh allegations that Mr. Pruitt had retroactively altered his public schedule, potentially committing a federal crime, had also escalated concerns about him at the White House, according to a White House aide. On Thursday afternoon, around 1:30, Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, reached out to Mr. Pruitt to tell him the time had come.”

Scott Pruitt was one of Trump’s most industrious Cabinet members, but he was controversial from Day 1

Trump’s announcement last year that Pruitt would take over the EPA was met with jubilation from the conservative base and revulsion from environmental groups, for largely the same reasons. Pruitt is a noted culture warrior who was eager to stake out his conservative bona fides during his time in the Oklahoma legislature, including pushing for creationism to be taught in public schools.

He was a deacon and long-time member of the First Baptist Church in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, and said his faith helped shape his views of the environment and his doubts about climate change. Pruitt cited the Bible to justify his alliances with the oil and coal industries and to drive out many of the EPA’s science advisers.

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, he set his sights on the EPA to defend the state’s oil and gas industry, suing the agency 14 times to block its regulations.

Since taking office in February 2017, Pruitt launched an unprecedented campaign against his own agency, pushing for budget cuts, staff reductions, and a drastic rollback of the department’s mandate to protect public health and the environment. The EPA started 2017 as an $8 billion agency with 15,000 employees. More than 700 employees were laid off, took buyouts, or left since then and at Pruitt’s departure, its budget was slashed by more than $800 million.

Pruitt pitched this as a “back-to-basics” approach for the agency, but environmental advocates saw Pruitt’s agenda as captive to the fossil fuels, chemicals, and automotive industries, sectors the EPA is supposed to regulate.

One of the Pruitt era’s biggest regulatory moves, for example, was a decision to overrule EPA scientists and ignore advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos.

The long-running defense of Pruitt from the White House and his allies in Congress was that Pruitt was advancing Trump’s agenda. This perception helped insulate Pruitt even as allegations of corruption mounted.

Pruitt has rolled back, delayed, or started the process of repealing more than 22 environmental regulations, ranging from regulations on clean water to greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Under his watch, the EPA collected fewer fines from polluters and lifted limits on toxic air pollution. The agency also started changing how it calculates the costs and benefits of environmental regulations, limiting what counts as harmful and defining “benefits” narrowly, a move favored by industries like chemicals manufacturers.

For a White House that often struggled to put up numbers, Pruitt delivered wins to the president that resonated with his base like few others in the administration. Pruitt gave Trump plenty of photo ops with his favorite prop: coal miners in hard hats.

trump and coal
The real MAGA hat.

“You know, I just left coal and energy country,” Trump said in April after coming back from West Virginia. “They love Scott Pruitt. They feel very strongly about Scott Pruitt.”

Similarly, there were plenty of Republicans on Capitol Hill who were willing to go to bat for him. “I appreciate the fact that you’re respecting the rule of law, and I appreciate the good work of this administration,” Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) told Pruitt during a hearing in April.

Meanwhile, Democrats and environmental activists quickly grew alarmed and mounted an organized campaign to Boot Pruitt out of office.

Pruitt’s unrelenting scandals, explained

Pruitt’s corruption in office was expansive, diverse, and comical. He introduced “tactical pants,” “used Trump hotel mattress,” and “Ritz-Carlton lotion” into our lexicon.

Pruitt’s taste for luxury air travel and close ties to lobbyists were among the first indiscretions to raise the specter of corruption.

After moving to Washington, DC, Pruitt lived in a condominium less than a block from the US Capitol and paid $50 a night, and only for the nights he was actually there. The building, however, belonged in part to the wife of a prominent lobbyist for natural gas interests, and was used to host fundraisers for Republicans.

In his first year in office, Pruitt traveled at time in first class, citing security and that he wanted to avoid uncivil travelers. He also gleefully milked the perks of being an administrator, using lights and sirens in his motorcade to reach dinner reservations, springing for more luxurious hotel accommodations, and buying fancy customized pens, perhaps trying to match the lifestyles of wealthier cabinet officials.

Pruitt has also spent thousands of dollars to assuage his paranoia. He spent $3,000 to sweep his office for surveillance bugs and more than $5,700 to install biometric locks with fingerprint scanners. He also had a $42,000 soundproof phone booth constructed for his office.

And unlike past EPA administrators, Pruitt has surrounded himself with a 24-hour security detail that racked up a $4.6 million bill.

Questionable staffing choices at the EPA was another concern. Pruitt hired Albert Kelly, an Oklahoma banker banned from working as a banker, to run the EPA’s Superfund program. Kelly resigned in May. Agency workers also received permission to keep political consulting jobs on the side and Pruitt gave big pay bumps without approval from the White House to two staffers, one of whom performed personal errands for him, likely violating federal rules.

The aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, have both since resigned. Another staffer reportedly was asked to use her personal credit card to book hotels for the administrator and wasn’t reimbursed in one instance.

Pruitt also leveraged his office to gain favors for his wife Marlyn. Millan’s sister Sydney, who was working as his scheduler at the time, arranged a phone call with Chick-fil-A at Pruitt’s behest to help his wife open a franchise of the restaurant. Pruitt asked another EPA worker, Samantha Dravis, to look for a job for his wife that paid at least $200,000 with politically-connected conservative groups.

To deal with all of his scandals, Pruitt created a legal defense fund. But lawmakers warned Pruitt that the fund created even more opportunities for malfeasance.

When cornered on television or by lawmakers about his indiscretions, Pruitt took several pages out Trump’s playbook. He brazenly lied. He never acknowledged wrongdoing. He blamed underlings.

In his resignation letter, Pruitt cited “unrelenting attacks” on himself and his family as the reason for his departure. The letter didn’t mention the environment at all nor did it even hint at any wrongdoing, but it heaped praise on the president.

Scott Pruitt made Donald Trump smile.
Scott Pruitt made Donald Trump smile.
Corey T. Dennis/Environmental Protection Agency

“Truly, your confidence in me has blessed me personally and enabled me to advance your agenda beyond what anyone anticipated at the beginning of your Administration,” Pruitt wrote.