We may never know what finally pushed Scott Pruitt to resign on Thursday as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Perhaps it was Kristen Mink, the young mother and teacher who confronted him at a D.C. restaurant three days prior, demanding he quit his job for the sake of her son. Perhaps it was President Donald Trump’s advisers in the White House, who had wanted Pruitt out for months. Or perhaps it really was the reason Pruitt gave in his resignation letter—that “unrelenting attacks” had taken “a sizable toll” on his family.
Whatever the last straw was, it’s broken. On July 6, Pruitt’s scandal-ridden tenure at the EPA will come to an end.
It took long enough. The subject of more than a dozen federal investigations, Pruitt was the poster child for corruption in the Trump administration. CNN’s running list of Pruitt controversies totals 29 bullet points, grouped by category: his excessive spending, concealment of public records, and close ties to polluting industries. And then there’s his miscellaneous scandals, which included spending $1,500 taxpayer dollars on fountain pens and $43,000 on a soundproof booth. The list did not include Pruitt’s secret meeting with a former Vatican official accused of sexual abuse or his use of a military helicopter to visit a coal mine.
A considerable amount of reporting went into exposing all of these scandals, as Mink noted on Thursday. “It’s not like I can take all the credit for this,” the schoolteacher told DCist. “The great majority goes to effective fact-based research of quality journalists who exposed the depth of Scott Pruitt’s corruption.” But the celebration of journalists’ dogged work in covering Pruitt, while deserved, shouldn’t obscure how much daunting work remains in covering Trump’s EPA. In fact, the job may become even more challenging.
Pruitt wasn’t at his most dangerous when he was renting a $50-per-night condo from a lobbyist. He was at his most dangerous when he was systematically dismantling America’s public health protections for the benefit of polluters. Andrew Wheeler, the EPA’s deputy administrator and soon-to-be acting administrator, may be even more qualified for that mission given his previous work as a coal lobbyist for Murray Energy and an aide to climate-denying Senator James Inhofe. Whereas Pruitt was often hasty and sloppy in his attempts to repeal Obama-era environmental regulations, and invited negative media coverage through the reasons enumerated above, Wheeler “is viewed as a consummate Washington insider who avoids the limelight and has spent years effectively navigating the rules,” The New York Times reported Thursday. “For that reason, Mr. Wheeler’s friends and critics alike say, he could ultimately prove to be more adept than his controversial former boss in the job.” Adept, that is, at working against the very purpose of the agency, by undoing regulations that protect Americans from water and air pollution.
Wheeler, who may be acting administrator past the November midterm elections and whom Trump may nominate for the top job, will have ample opportunity to continue Pruitt’s agenda come Monday. Hours before the EPA chief resigned on Thursday, the Times revealed that the EPA is preparing to submit a new version of the Clean Power Plan, President Barack Obama’s signature regulation to fight global warming, which tackles emissions from coal-fired power plants. That new version is said to require very little from coal plants, only modest upgrades compared to the aggressive clean-up that Obama’s rule required. Wheeler may also continue Pruitt’s work of disqualifying air pollution science from being used at the agency; ignoring environmental justice; weakening oversight of toxic chemicals; and declining to prosecute polluters for environmental crimes.
The one silver lining to Pruitt’s damaging tenure at the EPA was how ineffectively he hid his corruption. He mobilized progressives in a way few on the left could. The environment is now a rising issue for Democratic voters, and green groups have raised millions for legal challenges that have stalled the EPA’s anti-regulatory binge. Wheeler might not inspire the same the political passion, assuming he avoids the gaudy excesses of his predecessor, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be any less worthy of journalistic scrutiny.