Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.
Mr. Administrator, Your Pants Are on Fire
We learned last week that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt exploited an obscure loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act to grant outlandish raises to two aides after White House officials rejected his request. In a subsequent interview with Fox News, Pruitt claimed he knew nothing about the raises until they became national news.
But on Monday, two agency officials told The Atlantic that was probably a lie. Both officials reported seeing an email in which one of the recipients of the raises “essentially says, ‘the administrator said that I should get this raise,’” according to the magazine.
An EPA spokeswoman has since confirmed the existence of the e-mail exchange but offered this in Pruitt’s defense: “There’s no way to prove what she said is true; a lot of people say the administrator said this or that.”
I love that sentence. First, the spokeswoman doesn’t deny that Pruitt approved the raises—she simply says this email doesn’t prove that he did. That alone makes Pruitt sound pretty guilty.
Second, there is a way to prove whether what the email says is true. A member of Congress could ask Pruitt the next time he testifies. Pruitt is a sleaze, but I doubt he’d risk lying to Congress. Especially since there plenty of EPA employees who would love nothing more than to stick the final knife in Pruitt’s corrupt reign and possibly get him sent to jail by testifying to his false statements.
Third, if you found out that one of your employees falsely told your human resources department that you approved a $50,000 raise for her, would you just shrug it off, or would you immediately fire her? The fact that this aide still works for Pruitt tells you everything you need to know about whether she was telling the truth about his support for her raise.
Pruitt’s personal security spending also made news again this week, as Senate Democrats revealed an internal EPA assessment of risks to the administrator’s safety. Completed in February, the memo could identify no specific credible threats to Pruitt’s life or safety. In short, we’ve been paying millions of dollars to protect Pruitt from Twitter trolls. (The author of the memo, a career EPA staffer, was fired, though I’m sure Pruitt knew nothing about it. [Eye roll.])
There’s more to come. The Office of Government Ethics sent a letter late last week asking the EPA ethics office to review Pruitt’s shady townhouse rental, his travel spending, and his alleged mistreatment of staffers who question him. The issue has since been referred to the EPA’s inspector general’s office, which has the power to compel staffers to answer questions about their boss’s misconduct. The EPA inspector general will also investigate another Pruitt aide, Samantha Dravis, who allegedly didn’t show up at work for months while accepting a paycheck, before announcing her resignation earlier this month. If the IG needs a Pruitt scandal primer to get started, I recommended this eye-opening list of Pruitt’s sins compiled by congressional Democrats.
Meanwhile, 103 members of Congress, including a handful of Republicans, have called for Pruitt’s removal, according to the Environmental Working Group. Politico reports that many other Republicans, however, are standing by Pruitt, not necessarily because they support him but because the Senate wouldn’t have the votes to confirm any of the presumably pro-pollution replacements whom President Trump would appoint.
BS Is at Record Levels
President Trump tweeted his support for Pruitt on Saturday evening.
While Security spending was somewhat more than his predecessor, Scott Pruitt has received death threats because of his bold actions at EPA. Record clean Air & Water while saving USA Billions of Dollars. Rent was about market rate, travel expenses OK. Scott is doing a great job!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2018
“Record clean Air & Water”? It’s true that environmental quality has been steadily improving in the United States for the past 40 years, primarily because past administrations and congresses have taken environmental regulation seriously. Those improvements have absolutely nothing to do with Pruitt or Trump. First, changes in air and water quality are measured over years and decades, not months. Second, many of Pruitt’s rollbacks remain tied up in litigation, so they haven’t even taken effect. Third, if Pruitt’s edicts are ever implemented, they will certainly slow, and probably reverse, environmental progress.
The hypocrisy of the Trump administration is scarcely believable. Pruitt has repeatedly criticized President Obama because his EPA reduced the proportion of Americans breathing badly polluted air “only” from 58 percent to 40 percent. Has Pruitt done any better? No one knows, because his EPA is way behind on collecting and reporting air quality data. In other words, Pruitt’s approach to environmental quality is “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means
Back in October, Pruitt barred scientists who have received EPA grant funding from the agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB). Scientists who accept money from oil companies with business before the EPA, however, are welcome. This week, news emerged that two members of the new SAB received funding from the American Petroleum Institute, a group representing major oil companies, to produce research questioning whether improving automotive fuel efficiency would benefit public health.
There are many definitions of “conflict of interest,” but they all go something like this: “A conflict of interest is a situation in which financial or other personal considerations have the potential to compromise or bias professional judgment and objectivity.”
As I’ve said before, there is no credible case to be made that receiving EPA grant funding creates a conflict of interest in advising the agency on scientific policy. A scientist who has received grant money to, say, study the link between tailpipe emissions and asthma does not stand to gain if the agency tightens or eases fuel efficiency standards.
There is, in contrast, a very clear conflict of interest when you advise the EPA on fuel efficiency standards while accepting money from corporations that directly profit from the relaxing of those standards.
The maddening part of living in the Trump era is having to wonder whether our leaders are truly stupid—stupid enough not to understand the concept of a conflict of interest—or whether they think we’re stupid enough to believe their nonsense.
I need to go lie down.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.