By the time he bowed to increasing pressure and resigned as the Environmental Protection Agency administrator on Thursday, Scott Pruitt’s outrageous behavior had made even some of his conservative defenders breathe a sigh of relief.
But the reasons those conservatives were, if grudgingly, glad to see him go are a sign that his departure will not reverse the damage caused by his policies.
Pruitt was in office just about a year and a half, but he managed to do a lot of harm.
Many of those who had been defending Pruitt against a rising tide of scandals and investigations shared his contempt for the agency he was supposed to lead. They stuck by him despite mounting evidence of corruption and his utter disregard not only for environmental regulations but also for taxpayers and even those who worked with him. They liked him because they thought he was getting the job done.
That job, unfortunately, was dismantling environmental protections. Pruitt got rid of regulations when he could, gutted others and made sure that still others were not enforced. He led an attack on the fact of climate change, encouraging President Trump to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris agreement. He led a cynical attack on science, discouraging EPA regulators from using much of the best data available. He has promoted fossil fuels and favored industry groups at the expense of the environment — and Trump and many congressional Republicans have applauded.
What brought Pruitt down was none of that, but rather excessive spending and mounting scandals that eventually could not be overlooked, even in an administration known for thumbing its collective nose at political and ethical norms.
Pruitt’s behavior has sparked more than a dozen federal and congressional investigations. He spent taxpayer money lavishly on first-class travel, unneeded office supplies and ridiculous security measures, including a $43,000 soundproof booth for private phone calls. He accepted a sweetheart deal on a condo owned by the wife of a fossil-fuels lobbyist. He used his connections to try to get a job for his wife. He sent his staff on demeaning errands. If they complained, he punished them.
He worked hard to fill the swamp of corruption that Trump’s campaign had promised to drain. Eventually, the stench became so pervasive that those who supported his assault on the environment feared that he could no longer be effective.
The many Americans who do care about the environment, not to mention health and safety, can rejoice in Pruitt’s departure, even though he admitted no wrongdoing. His resignation letter blamed “unrelenting attacks.”
We cannot, however, assume that the EPA’s focus will change. Pruitt was chosen for the job because he was an avowed enemy of the agency. He was close to the oil and gas industry and, as Oklahoma attorney general, had filed multiple lawsuits against EPA. The new acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal industry lobbyist. Trump said Wheeler “will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda.”
Pruitt’s excesses in ripping off taxpayers and using his position for personal gain will end. The administration’s excesses in dismantling environmental regulations and catering to wealthy polluters unfortunately, will continue.