The incredible hubris of Scott Pruitt
On Thursday, after months of ethics scandals, Scott Pruitt resigned as Environmental Protection Agency administrator. The problem with Pruitt wasn't just that he was bad at his job — it's that he was bad in just about every way it's possible for a government official to be bad. He had terrible ideas. He was incompetent. And, worst of all, he was personally corrupt. The fact that he stayed in office long past the point when all the tales of petty grifting should have put him on a bus back to Oklahoma reflects the corruption and incompetence of the administration as a whole. Indeed, the story of Scott Pruitt is the story of the Trump administration in grimy, ugly miniature.
It's rare a Cabinet member comes to office so dead-set against fulfilling the mandate of the agency he or she is supposed to lead. Pruitt never meant to protect the environment. His agenda, since his days as Oklahoma attorney general, has been to undermine, undo, and generally set back the cause of environmental regulation in this country. When weighing the desires of Big Business up against the need to preserve the air and water of this country for future generations to breathe and drink, Pruitt chose in favor of Big Business every time.
This was the real scandal of Pruitt's tenure. There are legitimate debates to be had about the right balance between letting your economy grow and creating regulations to protect other interests. But Pruitt gave little indication of seeking that balance, and that will have consequences for the American public he so badly served: People will get sick and die. And that's a scandal that won't go away with his resignation; Andrew Wheeler, the new acting EPA administrator, previously served as a lobbyist for the coal industry.
We should be thankful that Pruitt was terrible at implementing his destructive agenda. Politico reported in April on Pruitt's ineffectiveness, noting he had little success in undoing Obama-era regulations ranging from methane emissions to smog: "The EPA rules that were in effect in 2016 are still the rules in 2018," Michael Grunwald wrote, "despite Pruitt's efforts to overturn them. He was far more effective at creating a backlash against his agenda than he was at actually seeing it through. "We're very optimistic that most of what he's started won't get finished," one critic said. That turned out to be right.
Pruitt seemed set on using his official post as a means to make his own life more comfortable, whether directly on the taxpayer dime or by leveraging his post to entice others to enrich him. "Service" seems to have been pretty low on the list of his priorities. Meanwhile, numerous tales of corruption and scandal followed him around like a bad stench. He reportedly had government staff try to find his wife a well-paying job. He used his influence to try to land her a Chick-fil-A franchise. He gave raises to staff against White House orders. He got a steep discount to rent his Washington, D.C., lodgings from a lobbyist. He often took the most expensive flights. He hired a costly, seemingly unnecessary security detail. Just before his resignation Thursday, The New York Times reported that one of his schedulers had been fired after she questioned the practice of "retroactively deleting meetings from the calendar" — that is, trying to hide information about Pruitt's activities from the public he served.
And underlying it all was Pruitt's unabashed hubris. Even as he was drowning in scandal, Pruitt went to Trump, and, instead of offering his resignation, asked to replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions. That takes a rare and special kind of brazenness.
In any other administration, Pruitt would've been gone months ago. In 2018, his flaws seem merely to mirror Trump's own, much larger shortcomings: Bad ideas? Let's invade Venezuela! Bad ideas executed badly? How about the Muslim ban! Petty grifting? Let's discuss the ways Trump is probably violating the Constitution's emoluments clause. Hubris? "I alone can fix it."
There are countless other examples. Trump is a bad president. And that's ultimately why the resignation of Scott Pruitt is so little relief. Pruitt is gone, but his flaws remain, encapsulating and defining the very spirit of the presidency that foisted him upon us.