The word “lie” appeared seven times—eight if you count the headline—in Justin Gillis’s 1,000-word New York Times op-ed eviscerating Scott Pruitt on Tuesday. The Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Gillis wrote, has been lying about climate science for the entirety of his tenure. Not telling falsehoods, misstating the facts, or spreading misinformation—but outright lying. “Why do I claim that Mr. Pruitt is lying, rather than just deluded?” asked Gillis.
You can tell by the way he words his statements, all that fine salami slicing about the need for more “precision” before we can do anything. The truth is that the science you need to know we have a problem was published 30 years ago, and it has already stood the test of time.
I think Mr. Pruitt knows that, too. But he found a fast, easy path to national prominence by becoming an errand boy for the most retrograde of the coal and oil barons. The way to understand the sleazy condo deal, the careless use of taxpayer money and all the rest is that these ethical lapses are just symptoms of the main disease.
Gillis, a consultant and author who used to be an environmental reporter for the Times, argues that Pruitt, through his persistent denial that climate change is harmful and caused by humans, has shown he’s willing to lie to further his political career. This has been true for years—long before two weeks ago, when journalists began revealing the ethical scandals that now engulf him. Thus, Gillis wrote, the public should expect Pruitt to lie in his attempt to save his job.
This argument is especially relevant now, as Pruitt finds himself caught in multiple contradictions that look a lot like lies. One can’t know Pruitt’s internal motivations, of course, but it’s becoming increasingly clear as these scandals unfold that Pruitt and his team have a strained relationship with the truth.
Consider the EPA’s justification for Pruitt’s excessive spending. Pruitt has come under fire for his regular first-class travel and his round-the-clock security detail—a level of protection that is unprecedented for not only an EPA administrator, but for higher-up cabinet officials, too. His political staff has said these expensive steps are necessary because Pruitt “has faced an unprecedented amount of death threats against him.” But in response to a public records request for death threats against Pruitt from BuzzFeed News’ Jason Leopold, the EPA said it had no records.
In a February memo, revealed on Tuesday by The Washington Post, the EPA’s Office of Homeland Security Intelligence Team criticized Pruitt’s justification for such security measures, saying it “DOES NOT employ sound analysis.” “EPA Intelligence has not identified any specific credible direct threat to the EPA Administrator,” the memo said, adding that the “‘threat’ to the Administrator was being inappropriately mischaracterized” by Pruitt’s security detail and the EPA inspector general’s office, which is in charge of investigating threats. Pruitt’s team has insisted there are more investigations into threats against Pruitt than there were for his two immediate predecessors. But the EPA won’t provide details of “any specific threats or arrests,” according to the Associated Press.
Pruitt has also found himself caught in a factual contradiction over a different scandal. Last week, The Atlantic reported that the EPA, in defiance of White House orders, gave massive pay raises to two of Pruitt’s closest aides—and used an obscure provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act to do so. That provision is for emergency situations only, and requires a personal sign-off from the EPA administrator.
In an interview on Fox News last week, Pruitt said he didn’t know about these raises. But on Monday, The Atlantic reported on an internal EPA email indicating Pruitt had personally approved one of the raises. The email “definitively stated that Pruitt approves and was supportive” of it, an administration official told The Atlantic. The EPA confirmed the email’s existence, but said that its content wasn’t true. Eventually, Pruitt’s chief of staff Ryan Jackson, took responsibility. “Administrator Pruitt had zero knowledge of the amount of the raises, nor the process by which they transpired,” he said in a statement.
Are these contradictions explainable—the result of miscommunication or disorganization? Or are they flat-out lies? That’s not clear yet. But Gillis has a point about the broader, more consequential lie that Pruitt has been telling about climate change for years—“a civilization-threatening lie, a lie that will kill people and destroy small nations, if not some large ones.” Pruitt is a man Gillis calls “so fundamentally immoral that for momentary political gain, he is willing to risk nothing less than the fate of the Earth.” A few lies to save his political career, then, wouldn’t be out of character.