Donald Trump demands loyalty up the chain of command, but loyalty down has been another matter. The latest test of loyalty down will be whether Mr. Trump stands behind Scott Pruitt as Washington’s green political machine tries to oust the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator for supposedly grave ethics offenses.
Mr. Pruitt’s real sin is that he is one of Mr. Trump’s most aggressive reformers, taking on green idols that others would bow before. In a year he has rescinded the waters of the U.S. rule that sought to regulate every pond in America; proposed to repeal the Clean Power Plan rule that sought to put coal out of business; urged the President to withdraw from the Paris climate pact; made a priority of cleaning up genuine pollution problems like Superfund sites; and this week began revising the destructive Obama-era fuel-economy standards.
If there has been a more consequential cabinet official, we haven’t seen him.
All of this has made Mr. Pruitt a target of the ruling iron triangle of bureaucrats, interest groups and the press. They’re creating smoke about his spending and ethics to get him fired because he is a political liability, as if they care about Mr. Trump’s liabilities.
Mr. Pruitt’s mistake has been to underestimate the animus against him. He should have protected himself better against even minor claims of misbehavior. But when you examine the charges, minor is the right word.
Take the flap over Mr. Pruitt’s first-class air flights, as well as $120,000 for him and his security detail to visit Italy last summer for a G-7 meeting and $40,000 for a trip to Morocco. Apparently it’s a scandal now to tour the Vatican in spare hours on a business trip. The costs are due in part to security precautions after threats against Mr. Pruitt. Some $30,000 of that Italy bill went to security.
Yet his predecessors took similar trips and racked up even more expenses. According to the EPA, Lisa Jackson, the Administrator from 2009 to 2013, spent more than $332,000 on four international trips; one trip to China cost $155,000. Her successor, Gina McCarthy, went on 10 international sojourns, spending $630,000. One trip was to Italy, where Ms. McCarthy received—a tour of the Vatican.
Then there’s the non-scandal that from February to July last year Mr. Pruitt rented a small condo for $50 a night from casual friends. The place is co-owned by Vicki Hart, a health-care lobbyist with no business in front of the EPA, but her husband, J. Steven Hart, owns a lobbying firm that represents industries including energy.
Mr. Hart has no share in the condo, and he has stated that he had no lobbying contact with the EPA in 2017 or 2018. The EPA’s principal deputy general counsel Kevin Minoli released a memo explaining that EPA career ethics officials had reviewed the lease and found that Mr. Pruitt paid a “reasonable market value” ($1,500 a month). A second Minoli memo this week offered a more detailed analysis, which some in the press mischaracterized but which Mr. Minoli described as “reaffirming the original decision” that the lease did “not constitute a prohibited gift.”
None of this is close to disqualifying, and unless there’s some new bombshell the uproar amounts to using ethical traps to expel anyone who threatens the power of the administrative state. If you can’t beat someone on the policies, trip him up on a foot fault. The next EPA Administrator, or new Cabinet official, will get the message and stick to the status quo.
For all of his supposed disdain for the media, Mr. Trump sure cares what they think. This includes taking seriously the bad press a cabinet official receives, whether or not it’s deserved. He seems to believe the worst that’s written about his subordinates when he’d dismiss such a story if it were about him.
The large turnover in Mr. Trump’s cabinet and White House has been unusual, and the way many have been treated (Tom Price at Health and Human Services, H.R. McMaster as national security adviser) makes anyone with talent reluctant to serve. If Mr. Trump throws Mr. Pruitt over the side, good luck finding someone as brave to replace him.
Appeared in the April 6, 2018, print edition.