Republican voters in Montana and Oklahoma will soon have an opportunity to send back to Washington two former Trump administration officials who left that town four years ago enmeshed in scandal.
Scott Pruitt is in a tough primary race, set for June 28, to fill the Oklahoma Senate seat left open by the resignation of long-time senator James Inhofe. Ryan Zinke is running for a seat in the House of Representatives that just opened up after the most recent census gave Montana two representatives; the primary, which pits him against four other Republicans, is today.
While many progressives are rightly concerned that red and purple states will send more Christian nationalists and Big Lie bigots to Congress this year, they should also be worried that those states will revive the fortunes of self-aggrandizing wrecking balls like Pruitt and Zinke. Pruitt and Zinke were members of the demolition crew that President Donald Trump assembled in January 2017 to roll back public health and environmental protections from inside the executive branch. Pruitt was the Trump administration’s first Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and Zinke was its first secretary of the interior.
Both men were responsible for protecting public health and the environment. Yet both shirked their statutory obligations in the Trump administration’s determined pursuit of “energy dominance.” And both had a strong sense of entitlement to spend taxpayer dollars on creature comforts that quickly brought about their downfalls.
But now they are back in the public arena, attempting to appeal to Donald Trump’s populist base by highlighting their association with his demolition agenda. During their time in Washington, D.C., they did irreparable damage to the agencies they headed. Should they be elected, they will eagerly support the efforts of their Republican colleagues to blow up the Biden administration’s fledgling attempts to protect public health and the environment. Indeed, the fact that they are running at all is a testament to the capacity of Republican party leaders to tolerate grifters and miscreants so long as they are prepared to advance its retrograde policies.
“In two years, we got a hell of a lot done,” Zinke boasted on the campaign trail. Pruitt proudly recalled his notorious years at EPA as he told Oklahomans that he would “restore energy independence” and “stop government spending.” While many of us might prefer not to remember that period of our nation’s recent past, it’s worth spending a few minutes revisiting the Zinke-Pruitt moment to remind ourselves of the grift at the heart of the Trump agenda.
Even before Trump plucked Pruitt from his post as Oklahoma’s attorney general to join the former president in D.C., he had a reputation as a vociferous foe of government regulation and darling of the energy companies—a man who had dissolved the Oklahoma attorney general’s environmental protection office and opened a new office dedicated to fighting federal agencies. To no one’s surprise, free market advocates and Trumpian populist groups joined business groups in supporting Pruitt during his bruising confirmation battle. Koch Industries spent $3.1 million on lobbying the federal government during the first three months of the Trump administration, much of which was devoted to ensuring Pruitt’s confirmation.
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Once in D.C., Pruitt got to work quickly on his twin goals of undermining environmental regulations and weakening the administrative state. He hired committed pro-business advocates to fill mid-level positions throughout the agency, where they were well positioned to advance the Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda. His former Oklahoma banker, who had recently been barred from banking in Oklahoma and had no experience with environmental disasters, became the head of the hazardous waste cleanup program. And he put his former law partner in charge of coordinating the agency’s regional offices. After Pruitt made his contempt for the agency’s staff apparent, hundreds of highly qualified professionals retired or resigned, leaving the agency with a huge loss of institutional memory.
While Pruitt was ambivalent about protecting public health and the environment, he was enthusiastic about promoting himself. He was forever flying to exotic places to address trade associations, think tanks, and conservative donors. He listened to their complaints and assured them that he was looking out for their interests. He was a frequent guest on Fox News programs and was on the cover of conservative magazines National Review and Weekly Standard. His aggressive approach to reducing EPA’s regulatory reach made him a hero to Trump’s base.
It also fueled a certain paranoia. Convinced that radical environmentalists were determined to do him in, Pruitt became obsessed with personal security. Within days of his confirmation, he demanded 24/7 protection from 18 bodyguards detailed from the agency’s tiny criminal enforcement division who would otherwise have been bringing illegal hazardous waste disposers to justice. He required his security detail to turn on the siren and emergency lights of his upgraded SUV to whisk him to his favorite restaurant, sometimes at great risk to others on the D.C. streets. The agency’s inspector general later found that the agency had not justified the additional security expenditures, which totaled over $3.5 million.
Pruitt also had a penchant for flying around the country in style, especially when the staff could come up with an excuse to return to Oklahoma, where his family remained, at government expense. Unlike his predecessors, Pruitt flew first- or business-class on commercial airlines, ostensibly for security reasons, while the staff traveled in the coach section. A single trip to Rome for Pruitt and his entourage set taxpayers back $120,000. Another $100,000 trip took him to Morocco at the behest of an oil industry lobbyist. The agency claimed that Pruitt needed a first-class seats because a few people had shouted obscenities at him in airports. Yet Pruitt flew coach when traveling on his own nickel.
Nor did Pruitt’s habit of tapping the public till to support his luxe-life desires end there. He was not shy about asking federal employees to run personal errands for him. On one occasion, he sent an aide on a failed mission to purchase a “Trump Home Luxury Plush Euro Pillow Top” mattress for him from the Trump International Hotel. On another, he had an EPA employee drive him around town to find a special Ritz-Carlton moisturizing lotion. With the help of the head of EPA’s policy office, Pruitt lined up a contracting job for his wife with a conservative advocacy group. The fundamental problem, according to an anonymous staffer, was that Pruitt was “not a billionaire” like some of the other cabinet members, but “sincerely thinks he is.”
By July 2018, more than 16 federal inquiries were pending into alleged mismanagement and corruption at EPA. Although several conservative activist groups rallied to his defense, Republicans in Congress soon grew tired of the constant drip-drip of reports of Pruitt’s indiscretions. In early July 2018, the White House demanded his resignation.
Ryan Zinke was just as committed to the Trump administration’s demolition agenda as Pruitt, and he was just as full of himself. Before joining the Trump administration, he served in the Montana Senate for four years before winning the 2014 election for Montana’s only seat in the US House of Representatives. He considered himself a Theodore Roosevelt Republican, and he strove mightily to project a public image of a cowboy determined to bring some common sense to Washington. On his first day as secretary of the interior, he rode a horse named Tonto through the streets of D.C. with an escort of park police on horseback. A special flag flew over the department’s headquarters whenever he was on the premises. His short political career, however, did not prepare him for his role as protector of millions of acres of federal land, even larger expanses of coastal waters, and endangered species. One former high-level department employee described Zinke as “all hat and no cattle.”
Like Pruitt, Zinke filled the department’s mid-level positions with ideologues from conservative think tanks and advocacy organizations and with former energy executives and lobbyists. An anonymous career employee reported that these staffers were only interested in “their checklist for dismantling regulations and weakening environmental and land use protections.”
Zinke also created a board to reassign the department’s 227 senior employees to new positions. In what became known around the department as the “Thursday Night Massacre,” the board reassigned 27 scientists and technical experts from jobs in which they were using their skills to protect the nation’s natural resources to jobs where, in many cases, their expertise was not needed. After the massacre, career civil servants kept their heads down and avoided promotions out of fear that they would rise to a level where their increased visibility would get them reassigned to some far-off locale.
Zinke shared Pruitt’s penchant for traveling in style, often with his wife, at government expense. In October 2018, the department’s inspector general reported that Park Service security guards accompanied Zinke and his wife on their vacation to Greece and Turkey at a cost to taxpayers of $25,000.
A foundation run by Zinke’s wife entered into an arrangement with the president of Halliburton, a company that did a great deal of business with the department, to build a brewery on land that the foundation owned in Montana. By the time that President Trump fired him in mid-December, Zinke was the target of 18 separate federal investigations.
Still, perhaps most pernicious of all was the way Zinke, like Pruitt, used his brief time in D.C. to undermine the agency he oversaw, turning its very purpose on its head. In particular, both men pulled back every Obama administration initiative addressing the existential threat of climate disruption.
Pruitt revoked EPA’s plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal-fired power plants and replaced it with a milquetoast plan that had no chance of bringing about significant improvements. At the same time, EPA eased mileage requirements for automobiles, thereby guaranteeing higher greenhouse gas emissions far into the future, and it withdrew permission for California to write more stringent emissions limitations for automobiles. Zinke pulled back the Department of the Interior’s requirements for preventing oil and gas drilling operations on federal lands from wasting natural gas that had the effect of reducing methane emissions by the equivalent of carbon dioxide emissions from almost a million automobiles.
In other deregulatory moves, EPA redefined “waters of the United States” to exclude wetlands and ephemeral streams that were critical to maintaining clean surface water and aquatic habitat; declined to tighten the ambient air quality standards for particulate matter that would have prevented and estimated 12,000 premature deaths per year; failed to regulate the more than 5,000 slaughterhouses in the United States that are the nation’s largest source of nitrogen pollution; and reversed the Obama administration’s decision to ban the highly toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos from food.
As the same time, Zinke’s Department of the Interior undertook the most radical transformation of the lands that the federal government holds in trust for Native Americans and for the American people since President Theodore Roosevelt first set out to protect that national heritage. The department oversaw a fire sale of leases to drill for oil and gas on public lands. And it rewrote the regulations for protecting threatened and endangered species to reduce protections for their critical habitats.
Some of these failures were set aside by courts, and some are being reversed by the Biden administration. But many remain in effect, and our health and our environment are worse off for their efforts.
When Donald Trump appointed Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke to his cabinet, the American people did not know what they were getting. We soon discovered that both were unfit for the high offices they held. As Pruitt and Zinke ask the citizens of Oklahoma and Montana to send them back to Washington, D.C., we should all be concerned that they will continue to put their personal prerogatives and the interests of the fossil fuel industry ahead of the public welfare.