Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Turns out threats against Pruitt were exaggerated — like his ‘work product’

It turns out the supposed flood of death threats against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was just people criticizing his work on social media. 

It’s worth noting that having Scott Pruitt bounced from this job won’t necessarily mean better days ahead for the EPA and the public interest it is supposed to serve.
REUTERS/Aaron Bernstein

“He likes the work product.”

— Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, affirming President Trump’s approval of Scott Pruitt’s performance as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week.

However long it lasts, I expect my favorite moment of Scott Pruitt’s federal service will remain this week’s revelation that much of the supposed flood of death threats against him was just people saying mean things on Twitter.

From the moment of his confirmation, the man has been a free-spending self-aggrandizer making boneheaded grabs for more perks. There was the lavish office remodeling, the lobbyists’ gifts and favors. Then the extensive travel schedule, in first-class cabins or chartered planes; on itineraries blending personal business and recreation with official duties; with an oversized entourage and eye-popping tabs.

Article continues after advertisement

None of this particularly distinguishes Pruitt in the current administration, or even its inner circle around a president who himself models plutocratic nonchalance. What has separated Pruitt from the pack is his steady assertion, personally and through aides, that he’s the target of an unprecedented number of credible threats to harm or to kill him, some of these including his wife, his daughters and other EPA officials.

Which, OK, if you believe it, maybe does justify some portion of the trebled security detail, reassignment of EPA managers from important agency work to spots on his traveling team, the chief’s concern about inviting hostile confrontation with coach-cabin passengers ….

The Washington press corps has reported steadily, if uncritically, on Pruitt’s security obsessions all along. Some accounts raised skeptical questions, but here was the problem — it wasn’t hard to imagine Pruitt inspiring deep hostility with his ham-handed dismantling of EPA programs and frequent purges of professional staff. And it was very difficult indeed to find any facts about the security situation, since Pruitt’s EPA rejects freedom-of-information requests unless accompanied by judicial command.

Now we have a letter from two U.S. senators who have reviewed EPA’s files, including “security threat assessments from the United  States  Secret Service that identify no ‘reports of behaviors of interest’ against  Administrator Pruitt, and an internal EPA Intelligence Office report that disputes the Administrator’s claims that the  nature of the threats against  him justify his expenditures.”

Moreover, say Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, “EPA Intelligence has not identified any specific credible direct threat to the EPA Administrator.” Instead, the file of materials collected to justify Pruitt’s concerns was found to contain such items as 1) a “social media post in which an individual ‘stated he is not happy with some of the Administrator’s policies and wanted to express his displeasure,”  2) an email stating “Hi, I am considering dumping the old paint I just scraped off of my home outside your office door on Tuesday,” and 3) a letter from a prison inmate that included no “overt threatening language.”

Carper and Whitehouse, both Democrats, called for a hearing on these investigative findings in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The chair, Wyoming Republican John Barrasso, turned them down, saying the personal safety and security of a Cabinet member shouldn’t be discussed in public.

Changing the subject

As the scandal has swelled over Pruitt’s bogus security claims, his use of a lobbyist’s condo at giveaway rental rates, and other appalling but peripheral missteps, I’ve had a nagging concern that stupidity and sleaze would divert too much attention from the substance of his destructive leadership at EPA.

Not to worry. If anything, there is renewed journalistic interest in taking a sharp look at what Pruitt is actually doing versus what he claims to be doing, two things not always closely related.

This is a theme I’ve raised before: A hallmark of this president and his top assistants is to govern with swagger and gesture, hoping the Trump base and susceptible others will believe this White House is actually delivering all the accomplishments it claims.

Article continues after advertisement

Pruitt’s assignment is to roll back regulations, and is doing a great job, Trump reaffirmed last week.

If you go by speeches, slogans and press releases, and obsequious press clips, it might look that way; if you insist on examining official actions and their status, the picture is quite different.

Writing at FiveThirtyEight, Maggie Koerth-Baker has prepared a fresh analysis and concluded that “on the whole, Pruitt is getting less done than he would like you to believe”:

Much of what Pruitt has done is to prevent the implementation of Obama-era policy by simply delaying those policies — not dismantling them. Consider, for example, the EPA’s own list of deregulatory actions that were completed under Pruitt’s tenure, which it compiled as part of documenting the agency’s adherence with Trump’s 2-for-1 deregulation executive order requiring that for each new regulation added to the books, two must be removed.

There are 24 actions on this list, but only two actually represent the complete and successful negation of an Obama-era environmental policy. In one case, the EPA withdrew its request for oil and gas companies to complete a survey about their equipment and the tools they were using to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the other, the agency rolled back a decision to increase air-quality-monitoring requirements on facilities that store and treat certain kinds of hazardous waste.

Of the remaining 22 actions, 10 were delays of Obama-era proposals — mostly extending deadlines for when rules would go into effect. One implemented a rule written during the George W. Bush administration that the Obama EPA had tried to block. Three offered exemptions for ozone pollution rules to a handful of counties in Tennessee and Louisiana. Two were uncontroversial updates of standards. One made a minor amendment to product-labeling laws. Five implemented rules that had originally been put forward under the Obama administration.

Examining the Pruitt record from a different perspective, Coral Davenport writes in the New York Times that a fair amount of EPA’s “work product” under Pruitt has been so sloppy, so hasty, or both, that it has already failed to survive court challenge, with more reversals likely:

Six of Mr. Pruitt’s efforts to delay or roll back Obama-era regulations — on issues including pesticides, lead paint and renewable-fuel requirements — have been struck down by the courts. Mr. Pruitt also backed down on a proposal to delay implementing smog regulations and another to withdraw a regulation on mercury pollution.

The courts, for instance, found that the E.P.A. had ignored clear legal statutes when they ruled that Mr. Pruitt had illegally delayed a regulation curbing methane emissions from new oil and gas wells and that the agency had broken the law by missing a deadline last year to enact ozone restrictions.

Article continues after advertisement

In other cases — including one in which a federal court ordered the E.P.A. to act on a Connecticut request to reduce pollution from a Pennsylvania power plant, and one where judges demanded quick action from the agency on new lead paint standards — the courts warned Mr. Pruitt that avoiding enacting regulations already on the books was an inappropriate effort to repeal a rule without justifying the action.

“The E.P.A. has a clear duty to act,” a panel of judges of the San Francisco-based Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit wrote in a 2-1 decision finding that the agency must revise its lead paint standards in 90 days, as regulations required. The agency had tried to delay the revisions for six years.

EPA dawdling isn’t new

That’s my emphasis added, to make a point in fairness to Team Pruitt: Yes, the Obama EPA was also going slow on the lead-paint standards.

As I’ve said here a time or two, the EPA has seldom distinguished itself by acting too hastily on important matters of pollution and public health. To the contrary, its record has too many examples of dawdling along until forced to act, usually by a court order in litigation brought by environmental or public health groups.

The important distinction between those EPAs and this one is that the Pruitt agenda is ideological, and the ideology is built on the simple principle that regulation is bad, so the less we have of it, the better. That’s categorically different from delay and inaction attributable to scientific uncertainty, budget constraints, political gridlock, and so on.

It’s also worth noting that having Scott Pruitt bounced from this job won’t necessarily mean better days ahead for the EPA and the public interest it is supposed to serve.

The leading likely replacement just now is Andrew Wheeler, a lawyer who has lobbied for the coal industry and against policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; he has worked both at the EPA and as an aide to Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who, like Trump, has called global warming a hoax.

With that experience, unfortunately, it is easy to imagine Wheeler turning out a work product equally pleasing to the president and his pals, but more enduring than Pruitt’s brief output of smoke, mirrors and scandal.