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Why the head of the EPA built himself a secret phone booth

Scott Pruitt sees himself as a wartime general in hostile, occupied territory.

The 2017 Concordia Annual Summit - Day 2
Scott Pruitt, outside his booth.
Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

As colorful as the Trump administration has been, few officials have drawn more incredulous attention than EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. The boyish Oklahoman is one of Trump’s favorites — he played a key role in persuading Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, against the advice of dozens of other advisers — and it’s easy to see why. In many ways, Pruitt is a more concentrated and effective version of Trump: just as tribal, just as paranoid, but with a genial manner, a smiling face, and enough focus to avoid pointless controversies.

Trump plucked Pruitt out of Oklahoma, where he’d spent a career as attorney general waging ceaseless war on the EPA, in close partnership with a network of industry and conservative groups. Since assuming leadership of the agency, Pruitt has mustered up a few limp defenses of his war — some nonsense about “EPA originalism” that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the agency — but generally, he has done very little explaining and a whole lot of firing, plus dismantling and reversing environmental policy.

Pruitt’s been in the news quite a bit lately, enough so that it’s a bit overwhelming to follow it all. So let’s take a quick tour of his recent exploits and try to set them in a context that makes sense of them.

As you read these examples, think of Pruitt as a wartime general in hostile territory (namely, the federal government), with only a skeleton force of his own people, working to dismantle his enemy’s capacities as fast as possible, one eye over his shoulder. With that in mind, it will all make more sense.

The phone booth and the security force

Last week, the Washington Post broke the news that EPA is having a $25,000 super-spy phone booth — er, Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) — built in Pruitt’s office, prompting a raft of Maxwell Smart jokes.

SCIFs are fairly common at law enforcement and defense agencies, but no previous EPA administrator has had a SCIF in their office. Past EPA staffers have expressed bafflement at Pruitt’s move, noting that there is already a SCIF on a separate floor of the EPA building for the rare occasions when one is needed (usually on a call initiated by outside agencies like the National Security Council).

Similar befuddlement greeted the news in April that Pruitt is attended by an around-the-clock security force of 18, as well as the news last month that the administrator’s security detail entailed reassigning EPA agents away from investigating environmental crimes. Pruitt’s detail, which costs double what his predecessors’ did ($832,735 for the first quarter alone), has also involved temporarily suspending a hiring freeze at the agency.

No previous administrator has had a 24/7 security detail. And the agency has provided no evidence that Pruitt faces double the danger that, say, Gina McCarthy, who typically traveled with a detail of 6 to 7 people when she was administrator from 2013 to 2017, did.

Gina McCarthy Discusses Legacy Of EPA Under Obama Administration
Gina McCarthy somehow survived her tenure at EPA without 24/7 security detail.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Pruitt has instituted other security measures as well, requiring aides to surrender cell phones before meetings, telling them they can’t take notes, and taking care to keep meetings in-person and verbal rather than over email. (He learned his lesson when a FOIA request revealed a long email history showing close collusion with industry during his time as Oklahoma AG.)

Again, though, all these moves make perfect sense to someone who views himself as a general in occupied territory. In Pruitt’s eyes, the EPA bureaucracy in which he is ensconced is populated by the Liberal Team, so it only makes sense that it would be out to get him, seeking to overhear his phone calls or slip iocane powder into his Diet Coke or whatever.

The meetings with industry and doing of industry’s bidding

In July, it was revealed that in the first three months of Pruitt’s tenure, he spent 43 out of 92 days in his home state of Oklahoma — some 10 trips, to the tune of $12,000 in publicly funded airfare.

What’s in Oklahoma? The network of industry and conservative groups with which Pruitt was so intimately involved during his time there. His team.

President Donald Trump Makes Statement On Paris Climate Agreement
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

This was verified in reporting last month from the Washington Post’s Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin, who got ahold of a leaked copy of Pruitt’s schedule from April through September. (Unlike previous administrators, Pruitt does not make his schedule public.)

There were two meetings with environmental groups. One with a public health group. And then scores of meetings with “corporate executives from the automobile, mining and fossil fuel industries.”

Mufson and Eilperin offer a long and damning list of instances in which Pruitt met with executives from an industry shortly before doing them a regulatory favor. Here’s just one example:

[Pruitt] met at EPA headquarters with Fitzgerald Truck Sales, the nation’s largest manufacturer of commercial truck “gliders,” which are truck bodies without an engine or transmission.

On Aug. 17, a little more than two months after meeting with Fitzgerald, Pruitt announced that he would revisit an October 2016 decision to apply greenhouse gas emissions standards for heavy-duty trucks to gliders and trailers, saying he was making the decision following “the significant issues” raised by those in the industry.

Pruitt has made little secret out of what he’s doing, which is carrying out the central Trump directive: reduce regulatory burdens on business. In his first four months, Coral Davenport reported in July, Pruitt “has moved to undo, delay or otherwise block more than 30 environmental rules, a regulatory rollback larger in scope than any other over so short a time in the agency’s 47-year history.”

Dismantling the regulatory apparatus — not environmental protection — is the agency’s primary goal in the Trump Era.

Thus you get stuff like EPA’s new “Smart Sectors” program, through which the agency will appoint a special liaison to each of several energy-intensive industries, to work directly with them to “reduce unnecessary regulatory burden.”

Thus you get Pruitt, who has said so many supportive things about the Superfund program, threatening to cut off funding to the Justice Department group that investigates and prosecutes Superfund fraud.

Thus you get EPA’s plans to buy out 1,200 employees, leading to the lowest staffing levels since the Reagan Era.

Frustratingly to Democrats, environmentalists, and people who enjoy clean air and water, there’s nothing overtly illegal about using the machinery of EPA primarily to reduce EPA authority and deconstruct EPA rules. Pruitt’s casual collusion with industry and hostility to his agency’s core function are morally distasteful, but at least to date, they haven’t broken any laws (though a number of his regulatory moves have been challenged in court).

So all the frustration toward Pruitt on the part of congressional Democrats is being channeled into an investigation of ... expensive plane flights.

The scandal that caught on: chartered plane flights paid for by taxpayers

In August, the EPA inspector general agreed to look into Pruitt’s frequent flights to Oklahoma.

Then in September, media reports revealed that Pruitt — like several members of the administration, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the recently fired Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price — has used military and private chartered jets for official travel. In Pruitt’s case, the flights cost $58,000 in taxpayer money. (One of the flights, in a darkly amusing twist, was a trip to discuss closing down EPA regional offices.)

House Democrats have written the EPA inspector general a letter asking him to expand his investigation of Pruitt’s travels to include these chartered flights.

Pruitt’s team has been furiously making excuses for the air travel, saying they were necessitated by delayed or unavailable public flights. No less an authority than Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe has said that they are “not a big deal.” Zinke has called the controversy over chartered flights “a little BS.”

Interior Secretary Zinke Discusses 'Vision For American Energy Dominance'
“The plane was only this big!”
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Trump fired Price over exactly this kind of thing, but as with most of Trump’s moves, that was mainly a response to TV coverage. Given all the scandals competing for TV time right now, it’s unclear that this will be enough to dent Trump’s generally positive feelings toward Pruitt.

This is what tribalism hath wrought

The way to make sense of these stories, at least in my mind, is to accept that things are exactly as they appear. Pruitt views himself as in a war — the only war that matters, the one between meddling liberal elites on one side and God & Business on the other. He is a pure creature of contemporary conservatism, tribal to the core.

I wrote a long post about tribalism, cosmopolitanism, and the alienation of the conservative movement from mainstream institutions earlier this year. I won’t rehearse it all again, but I’ll just restate the conclusion.

Most people on the left these days take a basically cosmopolitan view of American democracy. They see the battle between left and right as taking place within a larger framework of transpartisan rules and norms, to which both sides are subject. The framework serves to set limits on political contests.

The US right, by contrast, has become almost entirely tribalist. Movement conservatives do not acknowledge a transcending framework; they see only the contest between the two sides, with everything at stake. They view the invocation of transpartisan rules as a rhetorical bid by liberals, to be mimicked when useful, but never a restraint on behavior.

In the tribalist worldview, there is only Us and Them. And in the modern conservative view, journalism, academia, science, and the federal bureaucracy (Deep State!) have been taken over by liberals and are now Them.

Rush Limbaugh
Conservatism in a nutshell.

The people now staffing Trump’s administration, and the younger classes of GOP Congressfolk, are drawn from that hardcore conservative bubble, where they have resided for so long that they scarcely seem aware of the norms that apply outside of it, much less respectful toward them.

Pruitt is a creature of that bubble. He has been given control over an agency he has worked his entire adult life to stymie and destroy. He views it as a rare opportunity for his team — energy-intensive businesses, basically — to dismantle the machinery They use against it.

The best window into this worldview comes not from Pruitt but from Zinke, who said, to a federal advisory board stacked with fossil fuel executives, that “I got 30 percent of the crew that’s not loyal to the flag.”

Zinke compared Interior to a pirate ship that captures “a prized ship at sea and only the captain and the first mate row over” to finish the mission.

Strained nautical analogy aside, the meaning could not be more clear: Zinke is telling fossil fuel executives that the fossil-fuel team has captured an enemy vessel. In his mind, the department and its rules are the enemy.

He’s got control of the enemy vessel, but it’s tenuous, because he’s only got a small staff of loyalists. The rest of Interior staff is Them, the enemy, disloyal to Us.

Interior staff is predictably incensed at this. The ethic of public service holds that primary loyalty is not to party or president but to country, to the laws and norms that restrain both parties. That’s what they hear Zinke saying they are disloyal to.

But that’s not what he’s saying. The tribalist doesn’t see any transpartisan superstructure to which one might be loyal, any more than the color blind see a rainbow. Zinke sees his team and their team. Those are the only options. The staffers put in by Obama and Democrats — all the ones who think government can be a force for good — are on their team.

partisan hate
America the mutually hostile.
(Pew Research Center)

The same dynamic is at work at EPA. According to the New York Times:

“There’s a feeling of paranoia in the agency — employees feel like there’s been a hostile takeover and the guy in charge is treating them like enemies,” said Christopher Sellers, an expert in environmental history at Stony Brook University, who this spring conducted an interview survey with about 40 E.P.A. employees.

That’s what all Pruitt’s flights to Oklahoma are about, all the meetings with business executives, the meetings with conservative movement power brokers, the security staff, the super-spy phone booth.

Pruitt is not looking to make nice with EPA staff. He’s not engaged in the same project they are. They are devoted to their agency; he wants to dismantle it.

So he spends his time with people from the bubble, surrounding himself with security and spy gear so They can’t overhear what he tells his friends.

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