Rachael Johnson co-authored this post.
Since taking the helm at EPA, Scott Pruitt has proven himself to be a fierce foot-solider in President Trump’s war on the environment. Far less noticed along the way is Pruitt’s disdain for his boss, Trump loyalists and the wishes of the White House.
Lately, scandals and federal investigations have mounted, there are now a dozen or more, prompting criticism from congressional Democrats—and a few Republicans—for Pruitt’s ethical lapses as well as his policy miscues. The latest outburst occurred in a May 16 Senate hearing, where one senator called him “laughingstock,” another asked to resign and even the chairwoman, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, mentioned the ethical cloud over him and mused about his effectiveness.
Why, then, does Trump hang onto him?
News stories and newly released emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act paint a portrait of a rogue agent. The story begins at least two years ago when Pruitt, then Oklahoma attorney general, served as an adviser to GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush. In a Feb. 4 interview that year with “The Pat Campbell Show” in Tulsa, Pruitt said he didn’t support Trump for president and predicted trouble if elected.
“I believe that Donald Trump in the White House would be more abusive to the Constitution than Barack Obama—and that’s saying a lot,” Pruitt said. He also agreed with Campbell’s description of Trump as “dangerous” and “a bully.”
Fast forward to January 2018, a year into Pruitt’s tenure at the helm of the EPA. In a Senate hearing Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse asked Pruitt if he recalled trash talking Trump. Pruitt looked askance, said he didn’t and added, “I don’t echo that today at all.”
And moments after the hearing concluded, Pruitt’s press office issued this fawning statement of his views today on Trump: “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’s history with senior White House staff is more checkered.
In June 2017, Pruitt—a committed skeptic about the well-established role human activity plays in global warming—called for a “red team, blue team” exercise where scientists of opposing views would debate the cause of the recent rise in global temperatures and climate change.
He got the idea from Steven Koonin, an Obama-era energy official.
In 2014, Koonin penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal titled “Climate Science is Not Settled.” And in April 2017, he wrote another op-ed for the Journal: “A ‘Red Team’ Exercise Would Strengthen Climate Science.”
It was this article, and his previous attacks on climate science, that grabbed Pruitt and his team’s attention.
According to emails obtained by NRDC, Koonin met in April 2017 with Pruitt and his Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson. On May 3, 2017 he wrote: “As promised, I attach a prospectus for a Climate Science Red-Blue Exercise. As I've watched the media since our meeting, I've become even more convinced that this would be a very good thing to do.”
By June, Koonin appeared to be a key player in making it happen. In fact, Samantha Dravis, Pruitt’s top policy adviser, and others sought Koonin’s help to help draft a response to a news article on the red team, blue team project.
On June 29, 2017, Liz Bowman, the former director of communications at the EPA, emailed Koonin and said “Can we talk sooner and do this announcement 7/5 or 7 /6?”
While the EPA team continued working on the exercise with outside experts like Koonin and conservative groups, the White House apparently was clueless, until mid-summer.
White House energy adviser Michael Catanzaro on July 25 wrote to Dravis urgently asking for a meeting about the red team, blue team idea.
“We need to get this on the books asap. There are lots of press reports about EPA’s planning on this,” Catanzaro wrote. “None of it is being run by us. This seems to be getting out of control.”
Around this time, Pruitt traveled to Italy, ostensibly to meet with other environmental ministers in the G7 countries. One evening, he dined with Dravis and Cardinal George Pell – the New York Times reported that this dinner had been left off Pruitt’s public schedule – and discussed Koonin’s April op-ed on red team with him.
Dravis asked a representative of the Vatican, to print out an article for Cardinal Pell to read. The article was Koonin’s op-ed in the Journal related to Pruitt’s red team, blue team exercise. (Page 84-85 of emails)
“I am at dinner with Cardinal Pell and Mr. Pruitt,” Dravis wrote to Father Robbie in an email. “They discussed this article. Can you print a copy for His Excellency?”
Pruitt and Co. plowed on. In late fall, a draft press release (p.571) circulated on November 4 among senior EPA officials, laying out a plan to undermine the government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment. The report left space for a quote from Koonin and another climate skeptic, William Happer.
Then, at the 11th hour, Trump’s White House tuned in again. They called an emergency meeting in early December and a follow up on Dec. 11, with the announcement planned for the 12th, emails show. Soon thereafter, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly killed the idea as it as ill-conceived and politically risky.
Then this year, as Pruitt’s scandals came to light about his first-class travel, a sweetheart condo deal and excessive pay raises for staff, Kevin Chmielewski stepped into the spotlight.
Chmielewski, who worked on Trump’s presidential campaign before he joined Pruitt’s office as a top deputy, from which he was forced out, said Pruitt retaliated against him for raising concerns about excessive spending on security, office decor, and first-class flights. He said he overheard Pruitt speaking with Stephen J. Hart, the energy lobbyist who rented part of his condo to Pruitt for $50 per night, about concerns that Pruitt wasn’t paying his rent.
Chmielewski said that Pruitt knew about the huge raises given to his top aides in defiance of White House orders, despite Pruitt repeatedly claiming he had no idea about them.
In addition, Pruitt brushed off other advice from the White House that he avoid TV appearances, which led to a FOX TV debacle with reporter Ed Henry, and that he accept White House help to prepare for a potentially grueling House hearing on April 26—which also didn’t go well, to say the least.
Even more troubling for those working at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was Pruitt’s quiet campaigning to replace embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions if Trump fired him, and news reports that Pruitt aide Michael Abboud reportedly leaked damaging stories about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to take the heat off Pruitt. Pruitt denied knowing anything about it, and argued it didn’t happen. But with his credibility, who knows?
Enough. The country deserves better. The president should fire Pruitt, for becoming an embarrassment and a renegade, if nothing else.