Minutes before President Donald Trump announced the resignation of Scott Pruitt, his top environmental regulator, one of his former aides accused him of firing another for questioning a potentially illegal purge of official agency records.
Both of those aides spoke with The New York Times on the record.
It was a fitting coda to Pruitt’s tenure atop the Environmental Protection Agency. Though well-liked by Trump until recently, Pruitt routinely alienated many senior staff members and would-be allies. Their subsequent press leaks and congressional whistleblowing made Pruitt too much of a liability even for Trump.
In his resignation letter, Pruitt alluded to—and dodged any responsibility for—the torrent of ethics scandals that plagued his tenure atop the agency. “The unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family, are unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us,” he told Trump.
But the multitude of scandals surrounding Pruitt were in fact his own doing. It was the defensiveness evident in his letter to the president that led to a routine mistreatment of his subordinates that led them to speak out—and may have sealed his fate.
The litany of former staffers with an ax to grind kept the Pruitt controversy in the headlines for months, eventually managing to exhaust President Trump’s patience, White House sources say. Even Fox News, the reliably supportive cable news outlet from which the president often gleans political advice, had turned on Pruitt by the end.
“Pruitt is the swamp. Drain it,” Laura Ingraham, a Fox News host and top Trump family confidant, bluntly tweeted earlier this week.
Pruitt’s departure comes amid rapidly disintegrating morale at the Trump-era EPA, which has seen skyrocketing turnover over the past few months. In the minutes following the announcement of Pruitt’s ouster, The Daily Beast received numerous messages from former EPA officials, as well as current senior West Wing aides, immediately celebrating the news in real time, expressing relief and exhaustion, and in some cases showing genuine shock that his exit from the Trump administration really, finally happened.
“He survived through so much for so long it doesn’t feel real that he’s actually gone,” one former EPA official remarked on Thursday afternoon.
Political appointees who remained at the agency were dejected, but resigned to their boss’ fate. Those who spoke to The Daily Beast said they had been alerted to the news before the president tweeted about Pruitt’s resignation, which is more courtesy than has been afforded to other departed Cabinet secretaries. One senior EPA aide lamented Pruitt’s downfall, but added, “it hasn’t been fun defending him either.”
Pruitt’s scandals began as those of other Trump Cabinet officials have: with details of his lavish travel and spending habits. He’d spent $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth in his office, $105,000 on first class airfare, and took advantage of chartered military flights on the taxpayer dime.
Trump’s EPA administrator would routinely have public servants and his staff carry out his personal errands and demands, even dispatching them often to fetch his protein bars, Greek yogurt, and other choice snacks during the day.
Apparent press leaks surrounding the travel habits in particular drew EPA senior staff into a mole hunt. Eventually Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff and a Trump campaign veteran, was accused of leaking information about Pruitt in retaliation for his firing in early 2018, which EPA said was in response to his spotty work attendance.
Chmielewski angrily denied all of it. But if he hadn’t been a leaker before, he quickly became one, and his subsequent on-the-record discussions with media and congressional investigators were devastating.
He dished about the lobbyist who arranged a Pruitt trip to Australia (PDF); efforts to purge the administrator’s schedule of politically problematic events; seemingly excessive spending on Pruitt’s personal security; expensive and lavish decorative purchases for his office; the use of sirens and lights on vehicles driven by Pruitt’s personal security detail to more easily navigate D.C. traffic; and the tasking of Pruitt’s scheduling assistant, Millan Hupp, to run personal errands.
The steady stream of damaging information that Chmielewski provided to Congress and the media has kept controversy surrounding Pruitt in the headlines, and released more damaging information into public view, for weeks, and put constant pressure on Pruitt—and on Trump.
The Times’ Thursday story on new allegations of misconduct included on-the-record attribution from Chmielewski and another former Pruitt aide, senior scheduler Madeline Morris.
In a city where damaging allegations often appear in the press anonymously, the increasing willingness of Pruitt’s one-time senior aides to publicly speak up about the conduct they witnessed was a testament not just to the severity of Pruitt’s alleged misconduct, but also the unfairness with which even Pruitt’s most loyal staff members felt they were treated.
Hupp was by all accounts one of Pruitt’s closest aides, having worked on his campaign for attorney general and followed him to Washington. But even she found herself in the administrator’s crosshairs after telling congressional investigators, under penalty of law, that Pruitt had tasked her with obtaining him a used mattress from Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Hupp resigned days after that interview was first reported. In response to what he interpreted as an attempt to embarrass him, Pruitt called around to allied conservative groups to complain that Hupp was untrustworthy—and, by implication, that their organizations should not hire her, as The Daily Beast previously reported. Sources familiar with Pruitt’s conduct of orchestrating behind-the-scenes campaigns against his own former lieutenants described the former EPA administrator as regularly “ratfucking,” a Nixon-era term to describe political dirty tricks.
Even as Pruitt’s conduct drew current and former staffers into potential jeopardy, and saddled them with substantial legal bills, the administrator did not offer to use his newly established legal defense fund to help foot those bills.
One former senior EPA official who spoke with The Daily Beast struggled to hold back tears while discussing the personal toll those costs had exacted.
In contrast to Pruitt, Andrew Wheeler, the EPA’s new acting administrator, is generally liked among the agency’s political staff. What’s less clear is whether he can establish the same rapport with the president.
In October, when Wheeler was tapped for a number-two post at EPA, reporters at The Washington Post stumbled on a since-deleted Facebook post in which he called Trump a “bully” and said he was a bad businessman. In response to the Post, Wheeler said he knew little about Trump’s energy policy views at the time, and had since changed his opinion of the man.
Privately, Wheeler apologized to EPA press staff and agreed to lock down his social media accounts. Liz Bowman, then a top EPA press official, offered some morbid insight into the work environment at the time.
“Oh gosh, don’t apologize,” she told Wheeler. “This is the smallest fire we will put out all day.”