opinion

Bedfellows

Too Crooked to Fail: Why Scott Pruitt Still Has His Job (for Now)

Lesser scandals have felled other Trump appointees. Why is the EPA administrator still standing? Follow the money.

opinion

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

Why hasn’t Scott Pruitt been fired?

His scandals are worse than those of already-ousted Trump administration officials. He’s even committed the cardinal sin of directly contravening a White House demand. So how come Pruitt still has his job, when David Shulkin, Tom Price, Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson, and Rob Porter don’t?

Because Pruitt is in bed—almost literally—with the very class of donors President Trump needs to keep on his good side. To be sure, there are others with Pruitt’s connections in the fossil fuel industry—but firing him will still be hard. Pruitt isn’t less corrupt than those who have departed; he’s more corrupt. He’s too crooked to fail.

First, a brief review of the EPA administrator’s misdeeds.

He baldly lied to Congress during his confirmation process, saying he didn’t use his private email for public business, when conclusive evidence showed he did. Indeed, he used it to coordinate strategy with Big Oil, which is why he lied about it in his sworn statements. That’s a felony.

After the White House denied Pruitt’s request to give two close aides a raise, he did it anyway, exploiting a legal provision meant to hire hydrology experts to instead pay the aides. That’s a misuse of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and perhaps more important, a direct refusal to follow the White House’s instructions.

It turns out that one of those aides, Millan Hupp, coordinated Pruitt’s personal housing search in D.C. That’s a violation of government ethics rules.

While that search was underway, Pruitt took a below-market rent deal from a lobbyist whose firm was pushing for a controversial gas pipeline (which Pruitt approved). That constitutes an undisclosed gift from the lobbyist to Pruitt.

As first reported by The Daily Beast, that lobbyist, Steven Hart, has bankrolled Pruitt’s career for years and even held GOP fundraisers in the townhouse while Pruitt was staying there. Icing on the cake: Taxpayers had to pay Hart $50 a night for the rent deal.

And then there’s the money.

Pruitt has racked up over $118,000 in first-class air travel in 2017, whining that our “toxic” political climate means that people aren’t nice to him in coach. (Ironically, some of the people being mean to Pruitt are affected by actual toxic chemicals that Pruitt’s EPA has chosen not to regulate.) He’s spent $58,000 of that taxpayer money flying back and forth from Oklahoma, where he is rumored to be mulling a Senate run.

Pruitt even managed to insult House Republicans by failing to turn over his travel documents to them on time.

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Pruitt also blew $36,000 on a military jet to New York in order to catch a $7,003 flight to Rome for a conference. He spent $40,000 to fly to Morocco to promote natural gas exports.

And $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth in his office. And $800,000 (and counting) for a ’round-the-clock security detail that even went with Pruitt’s family to Disney World.

Pruitt’s corruption isn’t about a single quid-pro-quo. It’s about long-term relationships that Trump himself needs.

He tried to spend $120,000 of taxpayer money to hire a shady PR firm that has targeted journalists, until news of that idea broke and the contract was canceled.

Just one of these offenses is enough for Trump to yell “You’re fired.” Former HHS secretary Tom Price, for example, was forced out after spending $51,887 of taxpayer funds on charter planes—a fraction of Pruitt’s first-class bills.

So why is Trump yelling “We’ve got your back” instead? Why is Pruitt different?

Easy: Follow the money.

Pruitt’s not just faithfully executing Trump’s promises to roll back regulations. He’s the conduit between Trump and the fossil fuel industry.

Remember, Pruitt, when he was attorney general of Oklahoma, cut and pasted a letter drafted for him by Devon Energy onto his own stationery. As described in an in-depth New York Times report, Devon has since “partnered” with Pruitt to roll back a host of environmental rules, particularly governing methane and fracking, and in exchange, has poured money into the campaign chests of numerous Republicans.

So have Chevron, Shell, Koch Industries, and the American Petroleum Institute.

Of course, Pruitt has already provided Big Oil with an outstanding return on investment. A 90 percent reduction in demands to power plants to conform to clean air rules. Seven hundred employees forced out of EPA, with no replacements named. Regulations nullified. The historic Clean Power Plan scrapped. Discussions of climate change banned. Scientists fired, replaced by industry yes-men.

But these plums are just the short-term rewards. Long term, Pruitt is the key link between the Trump administration and Big Oil. As shown in another New York Times exposé, he meets with industry representatives all the time, more than with any other constituency, and often behind closed doors. Pruitt’s corruption isn’t about a single quid-pro-quo. It’s about long-term relationships that Trump himself needs.

Pruitt also has his own funding connections. As revealed by the nonprofit MapLight, Pruitt is the former chairman of the “Rule of Law Defense Fund,” which was bankrolled by more than $750,000 in conservative dark money, funneled through the Judicial Crisis Network (itself a creature of the dark money group Wellspring Corporation), the Rule of Law Project, and Koch brothers-affiliated Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce.

These players are not Robert Mercer. They’re not Trump diehards, with the possible exception of JCN, originally the brainchild of Jay Sekulow, now Trump’s attorney. Indeed, many of them—like the Koch brothers—were once opposed to Trump. They are fairweather fans, and right now Pruitt is their team’s franchise player.

Now you can see why Pruitt has, thus far, has survived, even though men have been fired for far lighter offenses. Trump can’t afford to fire him. Pruitt is just too corrupt to fail.

But there may be a way out.

Robert Murray, the CEO of Murray Energy, donated $300,000 to Trump’s inauguration. Murray Energy just donated $1 million to Trump’s super PAC. Last year, Murray wrote a now-infamous memo listing 16 specific regulations he wanted rolled back by various agencies. All 16 have been or are being rolled back.

Murray’s leading lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, is now No. 2 at Pruitt’s EPA. If Pruitt goes, Wheeler appears next in line. He’s also a long-term climate denialist, and, to boot, a big fan of Milo Yiannopoulos. And he’s got the same caliber of corporate connections as Pruitt.

So if Pruitt truly has to go, Wheeler can step into his shoes. In Trump’s world, no one is truly irreplaceable.