When Donald Trump assumed the office of president a little more than 18 months ago, he did so with a pledge to “drain the swamp,” promising to remove the corruption and stagnancy from Washington, D.C., that pre-dated his election and fill it instead with qualified individuals who would rise to the challenge of public service.
What he did instead, in many cases, was appoint big business people and lobbyists, many of whom had openly declared their revulsion for the very agencies they were tasked with leading. And although there are many worthy candidates to choose from, perhaps no one in the Trump administration better embodies this desire to undo everything that his department stood for than the now-former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, who managed in between numerous self-inflicted scandals to roll back regulations at a pace that suggests the very word “environment” was anathema to him.
Pruitt was dogged by an array of scandals that would have likely sunk a Cabinet member of any previous administration, although the Trump Cabinet is in many ways like nothing we have seen before. Pruitt, for example, faced more than a dozen investigations at the federal and congressional level over everything from his penchant for asking department employees to perform personal tasks for him to his obsessive desire for over-the-top security details to a questionable $50-a-night condominium deal through the wife of a fossil-fuel lobbyist to questions about his contacts with representatives from the very industry he was charged with regulating.
What is truly astounding, however, is that in the end, Pruitt left of his own volition, brandishing a defiant tone that indicated that he still believed he had done nothing but right by the country he claims to have served. Sycophant to the bitter end, his resignation letter to Trump proclaims that he considered it “a blessing to be serving you in any capacity... .”
To be fair, Pruitt’s final letter as administrator at the EPA does contain at least one truth, as he characterized the work that he and Trump have managed to perform in the past 18 months as “transformative.” Without a doubt, Pruitt used this word hoping that the positive connotation associated with it would help undo the more-than-skin-deep patina of shame that coated everything he put his mind to while at the EPA.
For example, Pruitt facilitated the rolling back or elimination of a host of environmental protections put in place by the previous administration, including air, water and land protections. Openly disdainful of even the idea of climate change, he turned his back on renewable energy initiatives and scaled back rules on the oil, gas and coal industries. In fact, Pruitt would likely have only drained a swamp if it contained endangered species and if there were an application to build a Trump hotel on it.
Frighteningly enough, Pruitt only represents the tip of the unseemly Trump iceberg when it comes to Cabinet appointees. Individuals such as Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and former voucher proponent and current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos remain in prime positions, slowly and surely inflicting damage on the departments they lead through a combination of active undermining and neglect.
There is little question about what Trump felt about the work his EPA administrator was doing, but as with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, and any one of more than a dozen high-level officials who have either been fired or who have resigned from this administration, Pruitt’s profile had become dangerously high and threatened to overtake the “good work” he was performing.
In short, Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who reportedly harbored delusions of grandeur and hoped to replace another less-than-happy Trump Cabinet official, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is not some outlier in this swampy mix, but rather just the most recent and most visible example of a larger effort to dismantle the institutions that have for decades well served the people of this country. But lest anyone think that Pruitt’s departure somehow represents the righting of a capsizing ship, consider the fact that his de facto replacement, acting EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, has long and deep ties to the coal industry as a lobbyist.
And the swamp continues to fill.
This editorial originally appeared in The Cape Cod Times on Thursday, July 12, 2018.