Scott Pruitt is a cartoon villain

Disney couldn't have invented a more obviously malevolent bad guy to head Trump's EPA if it tried

Scott Pruitt.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Hramovnick/iStock, Michael Burrell/iStock, Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images, Dario Lo Presti / Alamy Stock Photo)

Here is a great joke with no punchline: A parody of a cowboy lawyer who built his career on whooping at them suits in Washington with their goldarn concern for all kinds of trees and birds and whatnot with the assistance of regular cash infusions from oilmen walks into the White House and gets appointed the head of a body created by President Nixon in 1971 to protect the splendors of creation.

Scott Pruitt is not even a (bad) joke. The real-life head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Trump administration has drawn attention to himself mostly for his travel habits. Like most bureaucrats he likes going in planes to faraway places and having a praetorian guard of thugs inconvenience anyone who might be so unfortunate as to come within a few miles of whatever annual meeting of cattle tycoons or oil honchos he happens to be addressing. There was even talk of the EPA leasing a private jet exclusively for his use, a scheme mysteriously and, in my view, unfortunately abandoned.

But this is kindergarten stuff. It was recently reported that Pruitt has been living in a condo owned by the wife of a powerful fossil fuel lobbyist, Steve Hart, whose client was recently given the green light by the EPA to expand a pipeline project. In totally unrelated news, Hart previously donated to Pruitt's campaign for attorney general in Oklahoma and even hosted a fundraiser for him. Apparently the Harts were only charging Pruitt $1,500 a month in rent, surely the best deal anyone has come across in D.C. real estate in a long time.

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Couldn't he have paid more? What difference would it have made at the end of the day if Pruitt had been asked by his oily companions to scrounge up an extra $500 or so to inch his rent even a bit closer to the Washington average of $2,500 a month? This kind of heedless corruption is of a piece with Pruitt's career. The liberal nightmare is a Republican official who thinks that climate change is a pleonasm. Pruitt is not just that. He is not a cheap grafter or an ideologue. He is a real-life cartoon villain, like Professor Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective or Hexxus, the brown pollution-based entity who sings songs about his love of poisoning rain forests in that neglected 1992 classic of non-Disney animation, Ferngully.

While serving as attorney general of Oklahoma Pruitt sued the agency of which he is now in charge on 13 occasions, each time unsuccessfully. There is a quixotic obsessiveness about these increasingly desperate bids to allow corporations to release unlimited quantities of sulfur dioxide into the air and mercury into our bodies of water that would be charming if it were not, you know, vicious.

Your average blue-blazered cynical Republican dandy will make bad decisions that hurt the people he serves nine out of 10 times. Once in a while, though, not out of principle but for reasons of convenience, he will disregard ideology. Not Pruitt. When a $26 billion agreement was reached with Wells Fargo, Citi, Chase, and Bank of America in 2012 over their unfair lending practices in the years leading up to the financial crisis, Pruitt refused to sign on, making Oklahoma the only state in the union left out. He regretted the fact that the Obama administration was attempting "to fix the housing market." No public servant in modern American history has taken so much trouble on behalf of the metaphysical dignity of our largest financial corporations.

An exhaustive list of the literally toxic decisions Pruitt had made since becoming chief administrator of the EPA would exhaust the space of a single column. He has indefinitely delayed the issuance of regulations on the use of, among other lethal substances, trichloroethylene, which has been known for more than half a century to turn drinking water into poison. He has refused to limit the use of numerous pesticides; he has repealed regulations on methane flares; he has punted on the question of addressing lead in water, which we know is definitely not a problem in this country, insisting that the question demands at least six years of further study. He apparently hates emission standards for automakers more than GM and Ford do, and one gets the sense that he is going to be disappointed when the Big Three and their foreign competitors doggedly insist on making cars and trucks that get halfway decent gas mileage regardless of what Uncle Sam demands.

In a way, the over-the-top nature of Pruitt's malevolence is a comfort. Most of the evil done in this world is a result of more or less decent people making bad decisions out of ignorance or exhaustion. It is impossible to predict when Ben Carson or Betsy DeVos will do something moronic and when they will stumble into competence or decency. With Pruitt there is no mystery. You could write Mad Libs featuring environmental regulations put into effect under previous Republican presidents, names of ludicrously dangerous chemicals, and verbs like "delay" or "rescind" or "eliminate," and no combination would sound absurd.

The secret to Pruitt is not that he is corrupt, though he almost certainly is. It is that he likes corruption itself, for its own sake.

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