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Why the campaign to force Scott Pruitt out of the EPA could backfire

Outrage from environmentalists will only boost Pruitt’s standing in Trump’s orbit.

US Environmental Protection Agency Headquarters
Sara Chieffo of the League of Conservation Voters outside the US Environmental Protection Agency Headquarters on March 28, 2018.
Umair Irfan
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.

The turnover rate in the Trump administration is now historically high. Just this month we’ve seen resignations or firings of Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, David Shulkin as secretary for veterans affairs, and Gary Cohn as White House economic adviser.

Amid the maelstrom, there’s now a campaign underway to add one of the few survivors to the list: Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

This week, 11 environmental groups including the League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Fund launched Boot Pruitt with ad buys on Fox & Friends, a six-figure digital marketing campaign, an op-ed by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign chair John Podesta in the Washington Post, and a publicity stunt at the EPA’s headquarters.

On the facade of the agency’s office, on Wednesday the groups projected a picture of smokestacks and messages like “Scott Pruitt puts polluters first.”

EPA headquarters illuminated with a message calling for Administrator Scott Pruitt to be fired.
A subtle message.
Umair Irfan

Environmentalists have no shortage of complaints about the EPA under Trump and about Pruitt in particular. The administrator has displayed a pattern of expensive paranoia, from spending close to $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth for his office to spending more than $105,000 on first-class air travel to avoid uncivil passengers as he travels to tout his agenda for right-wing media. He also faces at least four investigations for these activities.

This week, ABC News also reported that Pruitt lived for most of 2017 in a condo co-owned by the wife of a lobbyist for a natural gas firm. In December, Pruitt took an unannounced trip to Morocco to promote US natural gas.

But Pruitt’s personal indiscretions tend to overshadow the bigger, more impactful changes taking place under his direction. The EPA is cutting its workforce to levels not seen since the 1980s. It’s weakening enforcement against polluters. It’s lifting limits for toxic air pollution. It’s undoing climate change regulations. It’s firing research advisers and replacing them with industry scientists. And it’s drastically slowing down the overall pace of work at an agency tasked with protecting the health of all Americans.

“For your numerous ethical breaches, alarming dirty dealings with polluters, and the irreparable damage that you’ve done to our health and environment, you must resign immediately,” according to the Boot Pruitt petition.

Pruitt, however, was not inside the building to see the message. He had skipped off to California, once again without telling reporters in advance.

A giant projection, a petition, and some ads are unlikely to make Pruitt see the error of his ways and resign, nor will they convince Trump to fire Pruitt. The administrator has demonstrated immense loyalty, a trait Trump seems to prize above all else among his subordinates.

And the outrage from environmental groups may push Pruitt’s supporters further into his corner. The same agenda that’s so repulsive to the campaigners has drawn praise from President Trump and much of his base. That it manages to piss off a bunch of enviros in the process is an added bonus, like the phenomenon of “rolling coal.”

Pruitt delivers for Trump in a way that few others in the administration have

In a White House beset by scandals, Pruitt has given Trump some of his biggest wins and best photo ops.

Pruitt lobbied Trump to withdraw the United States Paris climate accord over objections from other advisers, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Trump gleefully celebrated the announcement in a Rose Garden ceremony last year.

Scott Pruitt and Donald Trump
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt shakes hands with President Donald Trump at a ceremony announcing the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

He was also by Trump’s side when the president announced his energy independence executive order, which revoked President Barack Obama’s climate change orders and started the process of rolling back the Clean Power Plan, the United States’ main greenhouse gas policy.

Back at the agency, Pruitt’s steadily rolled back or stalled environmental regulations to benefit the fossil fuels industry, the chemicals industry, and big agribusiness.

And he’s done it without embarrassing the president too much.

While Pruitt did receive a stern wag of the finger from White House chief of staff John Kelly for his profligate travel spending, Pruitt’s isn’t anywhere near the most outlandish in the Cabinet. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned after reports revealed he spent more than $1 million on private air travel. A watchdog group recently reported that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin cost taxpayers almost $1 million in air travel.

In a radio interview ahead of the 2016 election resurfaced earlier this year, Pruitt said Trump would be “abusive to the Constitution” and described him as a “bully.” Trump has proved willing to let this slide, though. (Energy Secretary Rick Perry similarly described Trump’s campaign as a “cancer on conservatism” with no repercussions.)

Pruitt also seemed to successfully avert any strife by praising on Trump after the interview surfaced. “After meeting him, and now having the honor of working for him, it is abundantly clear that President Trump is the most consequential leader of our time,” Pruitt said in a statement in January. “No one has done more to advance the rule of law than President Trump. The president has liberated our country from the political class and given America back to the people.”

Everything Pruitt does boosts his standing with the Republican base

Conservative media in turn has lavished praise on Pruitt, and, as Emily Atkin noted in the New Republic, has given Pruitt a pass on his luxury air travel. The excuses align with how Trump’s base excuses the president’s alleged corruption.

The fact that environmentalists, liberals, and Democrats are all upset with Pruitt’s actions in office only further boosts his standing on the right.

Who is “they”?
The Weekly Standard

Pruitt also savors this kind of notoriety from the media, even as he hides his whereabouts from them. I invite you to read the EPA’s year-in-review report for 2017. The 37-page document contains 10 pages listing positive media hits for Pruitt and seven pages of praise from lawmakers, lobbyists, and industry officials.


He has trolled the EPA’s own employees as well, planting posters throughout the agency celebrating the undoing of its work. And when some employees turned the posters around, Pruitt used security camera footage to identify them and scold them.

All this means the Boot Pruitt campaign is unlikely to unseat the EPA administrator. You can’t shame the shameless, especially when they’re celebrating what you’re trying to shame them for.

“Clearly, Scott Pruitt is proud of his record of giving polluters exactly what they asked for,” Sara Chieffo, vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, told me outside of the agency’s office.

That doesn’t mean Pruitt won’t give up the job on his own. It’s an open secret that Pruitt has higher ambitions, possibly a run for Senate or governor in Oklahoma, or angling for a spot as attorney general.

And in an administration built on resentment and fueled by spite, “polluting the environment to troll the libs” is an end unto itself.