TrumpWatch, Day 332: Pruitt’s Gone — But Ex-Coal Lobbyist Takes Over EPA

Former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, interim head of the Environmental Protection Agency after the resignation of Scott Pruitt

Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, beset by numerous claims of abuse of power and ethics violations, resigns.

But in a sign that Pruitt’s approach ripping up environmental protections will continue, he has been replaced for now by Deputy Director Andrew Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the coal industry.

Donald Trump brought in Pruitt, who as Oklahoma Attorney General pursued a series of lawsuits against the EPA, to roll back the agency’s regulations, especially those introduced in the Obama era. A denier of human-based climate change, Pruitt ordered the agency to remove references to the issue.

But it was on the personal front, rather than the gutting of the agency’s personnel and authority, that Pruitt ran into trouble. He was the subject of 16 Federal ethics investigations, one of which had already found him guilty of a violation. He was generating high-profile, embarrassing headlines about having staff pay his bills and then not reimbursing them; his $50 per month rental in a condo owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist; his pursuit of Ritz Carlton hand lotions and a Trump Hotel used mattress; his insistence on first-class flights; his maintenance of a secret calendar for potentially embarrassing meetings, including with lobbyists; his expensive “security phone booth” in his office; his gluttony for perquisites such as premier tickets to sporting events like US football’s Super Bowl; and his quest for a $200,000 job and a chicken restaurant franchise for his wife.

Donald Trump announced Pruitt’s resignation on Twitter on Thursday afternoon, expressing his confidence that the mission to strip back the EPA will continue under his replacement:

Pruitt’s resignation letter was then published, claiming — in defiance of the multiple ethics investigations — that the blame lay with “personal attacks” on him and his family.

Instead, the decisive factor appeared to be Trump’s turn against the EPA head. On Wednesday, there had been no indication of a resignation, with Pruitt appearing relaxed at July 4 parties at the White House and Interior Department.

But, according to “an individual close to Pruitt”, Trump was tipped over the edge on Thursday by a report that Pruitt had asked Trump to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, so Pruitt could take over the Justice Department.

While Trump has repeatedly insulted and threatened to dismiss Sessions, he was unhappy to see publicity about another official making the call. His discontent was compounded, according to a “White House aide”, by this week’s revelations of Pruitt’s secret calendar and alteration of the EPA’s public record, a potential federal crime.

On Thursday afternoon, White House Chief of Staff Kelly called Pruitt to say he must depart.

An Ex-Lobbyist in Charge

But far from salvaging the EPA’s work, the interim leadership of Andrew Wheeler may accelerate the weakening of regulations.

While hardline in defense of fossil fuels, Wheeler is seen as a skilful operator in Washington. He has avoided attention as well as the ethical questions surrounding Pruitt’s behavior. And he is seen as being precise, avoiding Pruitt’s looser approach that led to the defeat of several initiatives in courts.

Wheeler worked at the EPA under George H.W. Bush, but is better known as a former chief of staff to Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, a leading climate-change denier. Before returning to the EPA, he lobbied for the coal company Murray Energy, whose chief executive Robert Murray is a Trump supporter and advisor.

With nomination and confirmation of a permanent head expected to take months, Wheeler’s tenure could extend beyond November’s Congressional elections. He may also be nominated by Trump, although several other names have been mentioned.

Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham and editor-in-chief of EA WorldView. He is a specialist in US and British foreign policy and international relations, especially the Middle East and Iran. Formerly he worked as a journalist in the US, writing for newspapers including the Guardian and The Independent and was an essayist for The New Statesman before he founded EA WorldView in November 2008.

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