Making America Toxic Again
About a month after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Scott Pruitt arrived at the Environmental Protection Agency for his first full day of work. The new administrator had weathered a contentious confirmation battle, with bitter debate over his long-standing ties to the industries he was now responsible for regulating—not to mention the 14 lawsuits he had filed against the agency as Oklahoma’s attorney general. But as he stepped into the EPA’s stately Rachel Carson Green Room, Pruitt wore the satisfied grin of a man in charge.
He took the stage with Catherine McCabe, the acting head of the agency. In the front rows sat some members of the EPA’s “beachhead team,” a group of mostly men whom Trump had installed to begin the process of dismantling the department of the Obama years. Among them were some familiar faces, such as David Schnare, a former career EPA official and prominent climate-science skeptic. A conspicuous number of security staffers circulated among the crowd.
McCabe handed Pruitt two gifts. One was a beige baseball hat inscribed with the EPA’s logo—a nod to Pruitt’s career as a college second baseman and a minor league co-owner. The other was an EPA pin, which she advised he should “proudly wear…on your lapel as you represent the agency.” Pruitt considered the pin for a moment and then set it on the podium. He appeared uncomfortable sharing the spotlight; as he stood next to McCabe, I saw him fidgeting with his glasses, his eyes shifting between her and the audience while she read a version of his biography that omitted the lawsuits.
Half a head shorter than many members of Trump’s Cabinet, a bit stocky, and balding on top, Pruitt didn’t visibly command the space. But once McCabe stepped aside, he relaxed as cameras broadcast his address to 15,000 EPA staffers nationwide. “I am excited about being in a city that actually has a Major League Baseball team,” he said, using his new hat as a prop. The speech was light on the environment and the agency’s mission and heavy on where the Obama administration had gone wrong. He covered talking points that he would repeat ceaselessly during the next few months: “Regulations ought to make things regular”; it was time to be “pro-energy and -jobs”; “process matters”; he would “listen, learn, and lead.” When it was over, Trump’s men enthusiastically pumped his hand while career staffers silently filed out the back.
It was not quite the fire and brimstone of his boss, but Pruitt’s quieter style masks the extent to which his approach to governing is the practical implementation of the president’s wrecking-ball rhetoric.