Political News

EPA Chief Pruitt Resigns Under a Cloud of Ethics Scandals

Posted July 5, 2018 10:51 p.m. EDT
Updated July 5, 2018 10:59 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and architect of President Donald Trump’s aggressive effort to rewrite the government’s rule book on environmental regulations, resigned Thursday in the face of numerous ethics investigations that doomed his tenure.

Despite Pruitt’s efforts to nurture a close relationship with the president, Trump himself announced the resignation in a tweet sent from Air Force One. He thanked Pruitt for an “outstanding job” and said the agency’s deputy, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, would take over as the acting administrator on Monday.

Pruitt in his resignation letter cited “unrelenting attacks on me personally” as one of the reasons for his departure. Pruitt had been hailed by conservatives for his zealous deregulation, but he could not overcome a spate of questions about his alleged spending abuses, first-class travel and cozy relationships with lobbyists.

Pruitt also came under fire for enlisting aides to obtain special favors for him and his family, such as reaching out to the chief executive of Chick-fil-A, Dan T. Cathy, with the intent of helping Pruitt’s wife, Marlyn, open a franchise of the restaurant.

The resignation appeared to happen quickly.

On Wednesday, Pruitt attended two Fourth of July parties, one at the White House and another at the Interior Department. One attendee who spent time with him said he spent the night mingling, shaking hands, watching the fireworks and showing no indication he planned to step down. His chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, also gave no hint of what was ahead.

An individual close to Pruitt said the president acted after he found one particular story in recent days embarrassing: a report that Pruitt had asked Trump to fire Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, so Pruitt could run the Justice Department.

The idea had been discussed privately for months by the president, who occasionally asked advisers if it was a good idea, according to two people familiar with the discussions. But seeing those deliberations being aired publicly, amid a string of other damaging reports, focused Trump’s attention, a person close to the president said. Fresh allegations that 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, Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, reached out to Pruitt to tell him the time had come. Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who built his career on lawsuits against the agency he would eventually lead, remained a favorite of Trump’s for the majority of his tenure at the EPA. He began the largest regulatory rollback in the agency’s history, undoing, delaying or blocking several Obama-era environmental rules. Among them was a suite of historic regulations aimed at mitigating global warming pollution from the United States’ vehicles and power plants.

Pruitt also played a lead role in urging Trump to follow through on his campaign pledge to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, despite warnings from some of the president’s other senior advisers that the move could damage the United States’ credibility in foreign policy. Under the landmark accord, nearly every country had committed to reducing emissions of planet-warming fossil fuel pollution.

In 2017, Pruitt made headlines for questioning the established science of human-caused climate change, contradicting decades of research by scientific institutions, including his own agency. Although Pruitt was harshly criticized for the remarks, they did not affect his good standing with a president who has also mocked climate science.

Trump has repeatedly told associates that Pruitt has done what he has wanted in terms of cutting regulations, so he has been reluctant to let him go. Pruitt, for his part, had made himself available to the president as a confidant.

He ingratiated himself in part by offering himself as a sounding board on topics ranging from the North American Free Trade Agreement to the Russia investigation, and he would join in as the president criticized Sessions. Pruitt often lunched at the White House mess in hopes of running into the president.

But White House advisers, including Kelly, the president’s chief of staff, for months have implored Trump to get rid of Pruitt. Ultimately, the president grew disillusioned with Pruitt after the accusations of impropriety and ethical missteps overshadowed Pruitt’s policy achievements.

In recent days, people who have spoken with Trump said he sounded exasperated with his EPA administrator’s negative headlines. “It’s one thing after another with this guy,” one person close to Trump quoted the president as saying.

Pruitt is the subject of at least 13 federal investigations, and a government watchdog agency concluded that he had broken the law with his purchase of a $43,000 secure telephone booth. He was also under investigation for his 2017 lease of a bedroom in a condominium linked to a Canadian energy company’s powerful Washington lobbying firm, and for accusations he demoted or sidelined EPA employees who questioned his actions.

Pruitt had come under criticism for lavish expenditures on foreign travel, including a trip arranged for him by a lobbyist to Morocco, a country where the EPA has no policy agenda. His domestic travel also came under fire after a former staff member told congressional investigators that his boss often sought to travel to Oklahoma, where Pruitt owns a home, directing his employees to “find me something to do” there so he could justify charging taxpayers for the expense.

A New York Times report earlier this year detailed Pruitt’s lavish spending and questionable practices in his home state, and on Thursday The Times reported on new questions about whether aides to Pruitt had deleted sensitive information about his meetings from his public schedule, potentially in violation of the law.

While Democrats have criticized Pruitt since his nomination, in recent months even conservative Republicans had taken the unusual step of criticizing and questioning his ethics. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has started an investigation into Pruitt’s actions at the EPA, the first such Republican-led inquiry into a Trump administration Cabinet member.

Sens. Joni Ernst and Charles Grassley, two Republicans from Iowa, a farm state with a solid bank of Trump voters, have both publicly criticized Pruitt. Last month, the conservative National Review, which once championed his appointment, called on Pruitt to resign. On Tuesday, Laura Ingraham, the conservative talk radio host, tweeted, “Pruitt is the swamp. Drain it.”

On May 2, Gowdy’s staff began conducting transcribed, behind-closed-doors interviews with Pruitt’s closest aides. Partial transcripts from one of those interviews revealed that Pruitt used one of his top aides last year essentially as a personal assistant, having her help him search for an apartment as well as try to procure a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel.

In addition, Pruitt faced irritation from the White House after The Atlantic magazine reported that Pruitt’s office gave raises to two aides, even though the White House had declined to approve the raises.

The EPA has denied any wrongdoing on Pruitt’s behalf.

As the scandals mounted through the spring, Pruitt was called to testify before several House and Senate committees. Although they were routine budget hearings, they ended up serving as forums for lawmakers to interrogate Pruitt about his management practices. Pruitt, who is deeply religious, spent considerable time in the days before the hearings in prayer, according to a person close to him.

He got through the hearings battered but intact, after deflecting blame for numerous issues onto his staff, particularly his chief of staff, Jackson, whom he blamed for making controversial decisions such as the illegal purchase of the $43,000 secure telephone booth.

But the tactic of blaming his employees cost him loyalty. In recent months, nearly a dozen political appointees have quit or been fired from the EPA. More recently, many of those staffers have been called to testify to investigators on the House Oversight Committee, which had launched a probe into Pruitt’s expenditures. The results of that investigation were expected to be the subject of a Senate hearing next month.

Inside the EPA on Thursday, as news of Pruitt’s departure spread, some career employees said the mood was jubilant but quiet given that many people were out of the office around the July 4 holiday. Some employees met for early drinks at Mackey's Public House, a bar near the EPA.

It remains unclear how well some aspects of Pruitt’s regulatory rollback agenda, and his effort to undo the environmental work of his predecessors, will stand the test of time. In his haste to cripple government regulation and publicize his success, Pruitt and his officials have failed to follow important procedures, and courts have already struck down at least six of his rollback efforts.

His removal will deal a blow to his political aspirations. People close to Pruitt have said that he had been using his prominence in the Trump administration to position himself for a run for state office in Oklahoma. His sights, some said, were set on a possible presidential run in 2024.

Instead, Pruitt is now the latest in Trump’s purge of top administration officials.