EPA Chief Scott Pruitt's Spending Could Cost Him a Shot at the White House

Scott Pruitt came to Washington with so much ambition, you could practically see it pooling on his brow like summer sweat. President-elect Donald Trump appointed him the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, but nobody thought he'd stay at that position for long. Pruitt had spent two decades rising through the ranks of Oklahoma politics, his fortunes boosted by evangelical Christians, the state's powerful concerns and, once he became the state's attorney general in 2010, the powerful conservative network run by brothers Charles and David Koch.

What did Pruitt want? To keep rising. In the summer of 2017, he'd visited Iowa, with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary caucus. Some thought he might return to Oklahoma, to run for governor. Or to wait for that state's senior senator, James M. Inhofe, to retire, and take his seat. There were recently reports that he was hoping to replace the nation's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, whose neck is perpetually awaiting the guillotine blade's merciless drop. A few people even thought he might want to run for president.

Pruitt is not going to be president, in good part because of the week that closes Friday. April, only days old, has already been the cruelest month for the former attorney general of Oklahoma. The end of March wasn't much better, with reports that Pruitt rented a Capitol Hill townhouse from an energy lobbyist for $50 a night. Flophouses charge more, and this was no flophouse. More unflattering reports followed: Pruitt had attempted to lease a private jet, perhaps imagining himself a mogul; when forced to negotiate Washington's traffic, he sought the use of emergency sirens, so that he wouldn't be late to dinner at an expensive restaurants (Pruitt appears to be fond of expensive restaurants, so long as either taxpayers or lobbyists are taking care of the bill); he wanted an ornate desk for himself, and a bulletproof desk for his secretary; apparently fearing for his life, he deployed a security detail of some 20 armed agents; prevented from giving raises to two aides by the White House, he did so anyway. And when officials at the EPA—including at least one Trump political appointee—questioned his profligacy, Pruitt had them demoted, a move that showed his charmless naivete about how things work inside the Beltway. Knives were out; now they have been plunged in, deep.

Do you believe that the Fake News Media is pushing hard on a story that I am going to replace A.G. Jeff Sessions with EPA Chief Scott Pruitt, who is doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege? Do people really believe this stuff? So much of the media is dishonest and corrupt!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 6, 2018

"I have never seen an ethical meltdown this fast and complete," says Keith Gaby, communications director for the Environmental Defense Fund and a frequent critic of Pruitt. Gaby had been among those who thought Pruitt came to Washington expecting to one day sit in the Oval Office. It is now more likely that he will be sitting in a coach seat, on a flight to his hometown of Tulsa. A return ticket won't be necessary. "It's hard to imagine campaigning with a record of grabbing perks, wasting taxpayer money, and cozying up to lobbyists," Gaby says, even as he cautions that Pruitt will find some way to blame his current troubles on the media.

Pruitt's tendency to self-indulgence is not exactly breaking news. His political rise in Oklahoma was supported by the energy industry, which has found in Pruitt a reliably uncritical friend. Reports of his lavish spending at the EPA began almost as soon as he arrived at the agency: preposterously luxurious travel, including a single trip to Italy that cost $84,000; $9,000 for biometric locks on his office door and $43,000 for a soundproof booth, measures that seemed, more than anything else, a testament to Pruitt's paranoia.

Even in an administration remarkable for self-dealing, Pruitt has been more reckless than his peers. And yet Pruitt seemed to be efficiently carrying out the president's deregulatory agenda, knocking down every environmental protection short of the Clean Air Act. So even as other cabinet members came under scrutiny for their lavish spending, Pruitt managed to avoid Trump's ire.

That's no longer the case, with criticism of Pruitt having metastasized from the mainstream media into the conservative outlets like Fox News and the Washington Examiner, to which Pruitt granted interviews this week. These did not go well. Trump is obviously, and acutely, aware of this fact. The New York Times can expend thousands of words on Pruitt's venality, but these may hurt him less than a two-minute clip of Pruitt getting grilled by Ed Henry of Fox News (not exactly the toughest interview in town), and looking through it all like a man who very much has something to hide.

The tone from the White House is clearly one of exasperation. "I can't speak to the future of Scott Pruitt," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said on Fox News earlier this week. The EPA, meanwhile, wouldn't answer Newsweek 's questions about Pruitt's future with the agency. He is a wounded animal, and everyone in the jungle knows it. Worse yet, the wounds were all inflicted by his own hand.

Washington has a remarkable ability to seduce, to make even the most powerful men and women on Earth into greedy children. There was Nancy Reagan and her dresses, Bill Clinton using the Lincoln Bedroom like a Motel 6, not to mention a thousand lesser figures who came to Washington promising to bolster the common good, only to find the pitch of a plastics lobbyist difficult to resist. And nobody was as eager for seduction as Pruitt. Trips to Morocco, dinners at BLT Prime, office accoutrements befitting a post-Soviet despot: Pruitt treated the federal bureaucracy like a candy jar into which he could reach without any fear of a wrist slap.

In this, Pruitt has made the same miscalculation as Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, who have both been fired, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who are routinely said to be in danger of losing their jobs. Aware that Trump sought what his onetime chief political strategist Steve Bannon called "the deconstruction of the administrative state," they appeared to conclude that if they were to do away with agency-level regulations, they were also justified in neglecting those regulations that applied to their own offices, as if these were one and the same. They confused libertarian philosophies of governing with outright libertinism, as if the only answer to a purported excess of regulation were outright lawlessness.

"I don't know whether Pruitt will survive this," says Walter Shaub, who headed the Office of Government Ethics under President Obama, "but if he does it'll be because the White House and Congress decide to put politics before ethics. This behavior would not have been tolerated in past Republican or Democratic administrations."

As it stands, Trump may not tolerate Pruitt for much longer, either. The man hates bad press, and Pruitt has been a persistent source of precisely that. He could open Yosemite to oil drilling, and still the boss is unlikely to be pleased. And yet Pruitt is only the most flagrant example of a problem that afflicts this administration with troubling persistence. Like so many other members of the Trump cabinet, he promised to drain the swamp, only to discover that the swamp smelled of roses.