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If Pruitt Gets Fired, Liberals And Conservatives Could Both End Up Disappointed

Is Scott Pruitt plated in gold or spattered in mud?

In a week where President Trump’s lawyer got raided by the FBI, Trump’s top homeland security adviser resigned, the president agreed to join an international response to an act of chemical warfare believed to have been conducted by the Syrian government, and news broke that the speaker of the House would not seek re-election — all before breakfast on Wednesday– it’s easy to forget that we ended last week expecting the imminent ouster of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Pruitt is still employed at the moment. But accusations that he received improper gifts from lobbyists, misspent public funds and engaged in questionable personnel practices have not gone away. And the swirl of scandal surrounding him — there are at least five open inquiries into Pruitt’s behavior, according to The Washington Post, and the Office of Government Ethics indicated Friday that it remains very interested in his alleged ethics violations— prompted a flurry of appraisals of his tenure at EPA. They were … confusing. He’s either a deregulatory master, praised by Trump and Republicans for his pro-business approach to environmental regulation and accused by liberals of destroying the environment. Or he’s just a spin master, and most of his accomplishments have been smoke and mirrors.

The truth, of course, is a matter of perspective, and it all depends whether you take the short, long or longer view.

Despite his reputation for effective and prolific deregulation, much of what Pruitt has done is to prevent the implementation of Obama-era policy by simply delaying those policies — not dismantling them. Consider, for example, the EPA’s own list of deregulatory actions that were completed under Pruitt’s tenure, which it compiled as part of documenting the agency’s adherence with Trump’s 2-for-1 deregulation executive order requiring that for each new regulation added to the books, two must be removed. There are 24 actions on this list, but only two actually represent the complete and successful negation of an Obama-era environmental policy. In one case, the EPA withdrew its request for oil and gas companies to complete a survey about their equipment and the tools they were using to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In the other, the agency rolled back a decision to increase air-quality-monitoring requirements on facilities that store and treat certain kinds of hazardous waste. Of the remaining 22 actions, 10 were delays of Obama-era proposals — mostly extending deadlines for when rules would go into effect. One implemented a rule written during the George W. Bush administration that the Obama EPA had tried to block. Three offered exemptions for ozone pollution rules to a handful of counties in Tennessee and Louisiana. Two were uncontroversial updates of standards. One made a minor amendment to product-labeling laws. Five implemented rules that had originally been put forward under the Obama administration.

On the whole, Pruitt is getting less done than he would like you to believe. It’s not nothing. Those deregulatory actions made Pruitt’s EPA the most productive deregulator in the Trump administration, according to 2017 data compiled by the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. But as Pruitt has rushed to block as much as possible, the EPA has wound up issuing shorter, less detailed rulings that aren’t holding up well to legal challenges. Case in point: In May 2017, Pruitt issued a 90-day stay of an Obama-era regulation that sought to reduce methane emissions at landfills. But the stay was challenged in court and the EPA let the stay expire, allowing the regulation to take effect. As of now, the rule remains on the books, even as Pruitt’s EPA was sued by several states for failing to enforce it. It’s possible that his legacy could end up mimicking that of Reagan appointee Anne Gorsuch, who slashed the EPA’s budget and enforcement activities — then resigned under a cloud of ethics violations just 22 months into the job. Her work left little measurable impression on environmental quality.

But while it’s possible to draw an analogy between Pruitt and Gorsuch, Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan. A big part of why Gorsuch was unable to build a lasting legacy is that she was replaced by William Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s founding administrator, who undid many of her efforts aimed at dismantling the agency. Environmental protection, however, was much more of a bipartisan issue back then, and if Pruitt leaves his post, his replacement will probably look a lot like, well, Pruitt. Hostility to more environmental regulations and skepticism about comprehensive government efforts to combat climate change are GOP orthodoxy now, not just the views of one rogue administrator.

Sure, the Senate would have to confirm anyone put forward as a replacement for Pruitt, and Republicans hold a very narrow majority in that chamber (51-49). But there’s no guarantee that Democrats would unanimously oppose an anti-environmental-regulation nominee. In fact, Democrats in coal country, like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, might feel pressure to vote for someone like that, particularly in an election year. Manchin, who voted to confirm Pruitt, has already said that he’ll support Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, for the role of EPA deputy administrator. And if even if Pruitt leaves and is not replaced quickly, it’s unlikely that the agency would go back to its more pro-regulation Obama-era approach, since some of Trump’s political appointees would likely remain at the EPA.

Remember when one-time chief strategist Steve Bannon left the White House? Bannon’s departure didn’t matter much in the end because the president himself adheres to nationalist/populist/conservative identity politics, so they remained an element of this policy-making even without Bannon there to push those views. This is even more true in Pruitt’s case. Essentially the entire Republican Party agrees with Pruitt on environmental policy, both inside and outside of the Trump administration. Trump agrees with him too.

If the president gets rid of Pruitt (and his ethics problems), Trump will still find ways to annoy liberals and delight conservatives on environmental policy. And maybe this time he’ll get an EPA administrator who does more than delay. In other words, it’s possible to say that Pruitt isn’t the deregulation powerhouse the president has portrayed him as (the short-term view) and that his resignation wouldn’t exactly spell relief for liberals (the long-term view).

Only from a still longer-term perspective is there truly good news for environmentalists. The very quirks of the EPA that allowed Pruitt to undo as much as he did may in turn undo his legacy. Congress delegates a great deal of authority to the EPA, which the agency uses to take broad laws — particularly the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act — and interpret them, creating the regulations that actually make the laws function. In the process, it decides how (or whether) those regulations will be enforced. That system gives the agency wide-reaching ability to determine the boundaries of its own mission and act without worrying about what Congress thinks. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Pruitt was not the first EPA administrator to be criticized for acting autocratically. His immediate predecessor, Gina McCarthy, faced similar accusations for her pro-regulation activity.

Pruitt’s path to undoing much of McCarthy’s legacy (and that of her boss, then-President Barack Obama) was relatively straightforward. All he had to do was decide that McCarthy had incorrectly interpreted the law, or decide not to implement proposals made under her tenure.

But this kind of power and autonomy can cut both ways. McCarthy learned that lesson when Pruitt moved EPA policy to the right. And Pruitt may learn it too — but probably not until someone else sits in the Oval Office.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Maggie Koerth was a senior reporter for FiveThirtyEight.