Scott Pruitt is the Trump administration’s most effective weapon

This week, Pruitt reminded everyone why he's Trump's most dangerous cabinet member.

(CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
(CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) wanted answers.

After ten months, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt finally testified on Thursday before the House Committee of Commerce & Energy, the legislative committee tasked with oversight of the EPA. Pallone, the full committee’s ranking member, wanted to know if Pruitt has required agency staff to recuse themselves from a particular project or line or work when a potential conflict of interest occurred.

Of particular interest to Pallone was a woman named Nancy Beck, who, since coming to the agency to serve as the EPA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator, has worked to rewrite regulations that govern how chemical companies report and track potentially toxic substances. Before coming to the EPA, Beck worked for five years as an executive with the American Chemistry Council, the main trade association for the industry she now oversees. Environmental and public health groups, as well as some experts officials, have suggested that Beck’s prior employment constitutes a serious conflict of interest issue, making it impossible for her to fairly regulate the industry that once provided her paycheck.

But Pruitt wasn’t interested in answering Pallone’s question, and repeatedly refused to give a yes or no answer on whether he had asked Beck to recuse herself from chemical-related work. Instead, Pruitt shifted blame for the issue onto career staff, emphasizing that Beck went through an ethics review by the EPA’s senior ethics counsel, who in turn deemed there to be no conflict-of-interest issue.

Unsatisfied, Pallone pressed Pruitt to respond either yes or no. Interrupting the administrator’s roundabout answer, Pallone asked once again for Pruitt to respond with a single word. But Pruitt would not budge, launching yet again into a more circuitous answer than Pallone wanted. With the two men talking over each other, Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), intervened, telling Pallone to let the witness answer.

He obviously has not recused her,” Pallone said. But rather than pressing further, the congressman — bound by a five-minute time limit and obviously interested in asking Pruitt more than a single question — let the line of questioning go, turning instead to a question about asbestos before his time expired.

It was a short exchange — lasting a few minutes, at most — but it briefly exposed the tactic that makes Pruitt one of the Trump administration’s most effective messengers: his ability to side-step the truth just enough to shape the administration’s deregulatory agenda and disregard for ethical norms into an almost palatable package.

It’s rare that Pruitt finds himself in front of a combative audience. He makes a point of granting interviews with largely friendly outlets, and tends to shun local media when outside of Washington. But even in front of a potentially antagonistic body, Pruitt manages to skillfully shape the conversation.

When Pruitt testifies before congressional committees, his answers are long, taking up most of the allotted time allowed by committee rules. He rarely gives an answer without following up that answer with a lengthy treatise on what the particular office, or particular regulation, is empowered to do under law. This manner of answering questions can make for unremarkable hearings. There are rarely any controversial moments that would grab headlines on cable news or send ripples throughout the administration.

But Pruitt’s quiet approach belies a ruthless adherence to the Trump administration’s anti-environmental doctrine — one that has has attempted to rollback 48 environmental rules since January, a third-of which were overseen by Pruitt and the EPA. In a cabinet rife with internal conflict and unqualified figureheads, Scott Pruitt is both a compelling communicator and a committed evangelist of the Trump agenda.

Throughout Thursday’s hearing, for instance, Pruitt’s demeanor never wavered from the kind of earnest, fair-minded approach that he often presents to the public. When Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) opened with a jibe about how he was surprised the administrator, being from Oklahoma, hadn’t come to the committee “Sooner,” Pruitt laughed, later telling the representative that it was “very good.”

Unlike Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, Pruitt doesn’t get flustered — rarely, if ever, tripping over his own words. Unlike Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Pruitt never appears overly aggressive or hostile to questioning. As one of the six Trump administration cabinet members to have gone to law school, he brings a certain ethos of prudence to the role, placing an emphasis on things like process, transparency, and consistency.

The irony, of course, is that under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA has consistently bucked process and forgone transparency in the pursuit of deregulation. On Thursday, before the Commerce Committee, Pruitt touted the EPA’s adherence to process when repealing or issuing new regulations, citing the millions of public comments that the agency received and responded to regarding its plan to repeal the Obama administration’s Clean Water Rule, which sought to clarify the legal jurisdiction of the federal government under the Clean Water Act.

Process matters as well,” Pruitt said. “It is this body that has required federal agencies to go through the Administrative Procedures Act to adopt rules that are informed by comment.”

What Pruitt failed to mention, however, is that it is also Congress — through a provision in the spending bill — that is attempting to remove the requirements under the Administrative Procedures Act — like a public comment period, or public hearings — for the repeal of the Clean Water Rule. If Pruitt is truly so interested in process, then it seems odd that he wouldn’t use his first appearance before Congress to bring up the fact that some legislators are actively attempting to undermine the very process that Pruitt lauded — on the very regulation that Pruitt used as an example for the supremacy of that process.

During his testimony, Pruitt also took a number of questions from Democratic representatives about his recent decision to prohibit any scientist that had received an EPA grant from serving on the EPA’s scientific advisory panels, which act as independent bodies aimed at providing scientific counsel to the agency on a variety of regulatory issues. But rather than cite instances of a time when a scientist who served on an advisory board and had received an EPA grant gave bad advice, Pruitt extolled the importance of EPA’s internal science as critical to the agency’s decision-making.

When we engage in rulemaking at the agency, we build a record,” Pruitt said. “And scientists at the agency, whether it’s in the chemical shop or the air program offices, it is important that we hear from our scientists internal to the agency.”

But again, Pruitt’s answer only tells half of the story. He did not discuss all the times that agency science has been undercut by political appointees, from his own decision not to ban chlorpyrifos — a dangerous kind of insecticide that EPA scientists linked to brain damage in children — to the EPA’s decision to repeal the Clean Power Plan even though its internal studies showed that the regulation would likely save both money and lives in the long run.

Throughout the hearing, Pruitt touted the EPA’s future goals, like cleaning up Superfund sites, or helping districts come into compliance with nationwide air quality standards, or helping communities deal with lead remediation. These are all good things, and important projects for the EPA to take on — it’d be hard to find an environmental or public health group that opposes taking steps to curb air pollution, for instance, or to help communities deal with legacy pollution.

But at the same time that Pruitt promised to focus the agency on these projects, he failed to connect how his deregulatory agenda — the agency’s efforts to undermine regulations about coal ash, for instance, or his decision to delay a rule that would force mining companies to prove they have the financial assets to cleanup their sites — could undermine his stated goals of ensuring clean air and clean water for all Americans.

“You’ve made it clear that you’re committed to Superfund cleanup. But what about preventing creation of new Superfund sites. The EPA’s job is to protect public health so it should be the job to prevent companies or entities from creating Superfund sites. Are you committed to that?” Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-CA) asked Pruitt during the hearing’s afternoon session, attempting to make the connection between the administration’s deregulatory effort and the potential for future pollution.

“Obviously lead, uranium, these issues, we want to do all we can to eliminate those things so we don’t have those kinds of sites across the country,” Pruitt answered.

“Well in your rush to eliminate regulations that’s exactly what you’re doing, is creating opportunities for new Superfund sites to be created,” McNerney said.

“I wouldn’t interpret it that way, Congressman,” Pruitt countered.

And with that, Rep. Jerry McNerney’s time expired.