The never-ending Pruitt beat reaches ‘a tipping point’

UPDATE: President Donald Trump announced in a pair of tweets Thursday that Scott Pruitt has resigned.

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Slate’s Isaac Chotiner interviewed New York Times investigative reporter Eric Lipton about his life on “the Scott Pruitt beat” in mid-June. For months, Lipton—along with rivals from The Washington Post, Politico, Axios, CNN, and other outlets—has chronicled a seemingly never-ending series of ethical lapses by the embattled EPA administrator. But Pruitt has somehow kept his job. “I think we’re in a very unusual era in terms of the consequences of ethical failings,” Lipton told Chotiner. “The only person that is going to decide the fate of Pruitt is the president himself or Pruitt himself.”

Yesterday, CNN quoted a senior administration official suggesting Pruitt is finally “inching forward to the tipping point” as the scandals rack up. The list has grown and grown since reports first emerged last year questioning his lavish travel and security expenses, and now includes renting a lobbyist’s condo for $50 a night, asking aides to get him a used Trump Hotel mattress, and trying to score a “business opportunity” at Chick-fil-A for his wife on government time. While the White House hasn’t detailed any apparent shift in its thinking, CNN’s report comes as Pruitt’s aides have started to testify before Congress, piling on further embarrassment.

ICYMI: A student journalist asked her school for records of harassment complaints against teachers. She ended up uncovering a big story.

Pruitt’s problematic conduct has included a secretive attitude to official information and hostile treatment of the media. Citing security concerns, the EPA has refused to publish his daily schedule, making it harder to know who he’s meeting with and why. Pruitt’s political aides have amped up screenings of public records requests and missed legal release deadlines, with Politico reporting this week that Pruitt has put his former fundraiser, Elizabeth Beacham White, in charge of deciding which documents see the light of day. And in June, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox told The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott that she was “a piece of trash” when she asked him for comment on the departure of a whistle-blowing Pruitt aide.

Reporters deserve credit for keeping an aggressive pace in their pursuit of Pruitt, which hasn’t let up despite his Teflon grip to his job. Other Trump administration officials implicated in ethics scandals resigned soon after the media came calling: Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price stepped down in September last year after Politico revealed his use of private and military planes to conduct official business, while in February, White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter resigned after two ex-wives told The Daily Mail that he physically abused them.

Why has Pruitt lasted? Amid the scandal, he’s quietly gone about a wholesale slashing of environmental laws, proving himself to be one of his boss’s deftest regulatory scalpels. Trump himself admitted as much when he said in June that Pruitt was “doing a great job” and “breaking records,” and White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley echoed that logic on Tuesday when he told reporters that the EPA administrator “has done a really good job with deregulating the government to allow for a thriving economy.”

This time, Gidley added that Pruitt’s many lapses of judgment “matter to the President as well, and he’s looking into those.” If CNN’s reporting is right and Pruitt is on his way out, then journalists like Lipton should take much of the credit. As he told Chotiner in June, however, the big story is not Pruitt’s personal conduct, but the damage his agenda is doing to the environment. This is no time for triumphalism. While Pruitt is uniquely corrupt in Washington, his successor will likely be no better for the planet.

ICYMI: The LA Times‘s hit podcast

Below, more dispatches from the Pruitt beat:

  • Another cable scandal compilation: MSNBC’s Chris Hayes yesterday cut all Pruitt’s scandals into one useful video.
  • Sessions EPA: On Tuesday, CNN’s Kaitlan Collins reported that Pruitt directly asked Trump to sack Jeff Sessions and make Pruitt Attorney General instead—a move that wouldn’t require Congressional approval for 210 days since the Senate already confirmed Pruitt to a different post. New York’s Jonathan Chait writes that while “CNN doesn’t say that Pruitt specifically promised to quash Mueller….this is Trump’s highest-order goal, and the primary source of his fury with Sessions. There is almost no doubt that Pruitt is promising to make the Russia investigation go away.”
  • A “zealous crusader”: As the Stormy Daniels story blossomed back in April, HuffPost’s Alexander C. Kaufman suggested that Pruitt may also have his religious beliefs to thank for keeping him in his job. “For a president dogged by accusations of adultery and sexual impropriety, that sort of reputation has currency,” Kaufman wrote. “The ostentatiously devout Pruitt gives Trump cred among evangelical Christian power players at a time when five Republican lawmakers and 170 Democrats in Congress are calling for his resignation.”
  • “Dirty politics”: ICYMI in early April, The New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot has this must-read deep-dive into the environmental cost of Pruitt’s EPA tenure.
  • Wheeler same-dealer: In April, The New York Times profiled Pruitt’s deputy Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist many have tipped to take the reins should his boss depart. “Unlike Mr. Pruitt, a Washington outsider caught in a swirl of controversy over his costly first-class travel and security spending, Mr. Wheeler is viewed as a low-key insider with years of Washington experience in the art of pursuing policy change while avoiding public distraction,” the Times wrote.


Other notable stories

  • Reporters at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, normally cover the city’s Fourth of July parade, but this year they marched in it themselves after a shooter killed five of the paper’s staff last week. “We’re not taking part in the parade because we stand for some brand of political thought or calls for gun control or arguments against,” they wrote in an editorial yesterday morning. “We’ll be on West Street and Main Street because we want our readers and our community to see that we believe things will, eventually, be OK again.”
  • CJR marked the Fourth by checking in with our French friends who made it all possible. Marie Doezema talked with with journalist François Busnel, whose hefty new magazine-cum-book, America, uses fiction to explore Trump’s divided US.
  • On Tuesday, The New York Times reassigned intelligence reporter Ali Watkins, whose phone and email records were secretly seized as the government investigated a former Senate staffer with whom she’d had a romantic relationship. In a memo to staff, Times Editor Dean Baquet wrote that while “we abhor the actions of the government in this case,” Watkins’s affair with a source “violates our written standards and the norms of journalism.” Watkins, who will leave DC for a new beat in New York, was recently subjected to an explosive profile by her own colleagues which drew criticism in many quarters—with the paper’s former editor Jill Abramson saying it “hung a 26-year-old young woman out to dry.”
  • After taking a buyout last week, Splinter’s Alex Pareene accused Haim Saban—the media mogul who chairs Univision, which owns Gizmodo Media Group, which owns Splinter—of being “bad for democracy.” In early May, Splinter’s Kate Conger, David Uberti, and Laura Wagner took aim at Univision itself, calling it a “fucking mess.”
  • For CJR, Jonathan Peters writes that the First Amendment has traditionally been of little use to journalists seeking access to prisons. “Press access to such facilities has been in the news because of the searing coverage of detention centers for migrant children,” Peters says. “It is tempting to see the limited access as an especially Trumpian trouble, of a piece with an administration that has labored since day one to delegitimize and marginalize the press. But the problem of press access to prisons and the like is a chronic one.”
  • And the websites of big US news organizations like the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, and The Dallas Morning News are still blocking European visitors over a month after stringent new privacy regulations went into effect on the continent, Digiday’s Lucia Moses reported earlier this week.

ICYMI: Mainstream media grapples with a left-wing wave

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist and former CJR Delacorte fellow. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.