Scott Pruitt’s Selective Memory
Editors Note: This article first appeared in the April 27 edition of onEarth, a digital publication of the Natural Resources Defense Council. It is reprinted here in adherence with onEarth‘s republication policy. NRDC’s onEarth is committed to “telling powerful stories and offering fresh, surprising perspectives that illuminate the most critical challenges facing our world.” Brian Palmer covers daily environmental news for NRDC. His science writing has appeared in Slate, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and many other publications. ~ JC
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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt appeared before two Congressional panels on Thursday—the House Energy and Commerce environment subcommittee in the morning and the House Appropriations subcommittee on Interior in the afternoon.
It was quite a spectacle, as a series of skeptical members of Congress tried to pin down an exceedingly wriggly Pruitt, pleading with him to give straight answers to straightforward questions about allegations of self-dealing, cronyism, corruption, and revenge firings.
Take Representative Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey. He demanded that Pruitt answer “yes or no” to a query about whether he had requested the demotion of five EPA staffers who questioned him.
Pruitt: “I don’t ever recall a conversation about that.”
Pallone: “I’ll take that as a yes.”
Pruitt: “You shouldn’t take that as a yes.”
For those of a certain age, Pruitt’s faulty memory harks back to the testimony of Colonel Oliver North during the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s, in which North answered yes-or-no questions not by denying wrongdoing, but by denying he could remember doing the wrongdoing. North deployed the tactic so often that he began to torture the English language to avoid repetition, using phrases like “I never recall seeing a single document.”
Or consider Colorado Democrat Diana DeGette, who asked Pruitt about his $43,000 soundproof booth in his office, an absurd expense that the Government Accountability Office has ruled illegal. DeGette wanted to know whether Pruitt knew the purchase was illegal and whether anyone would be punished.
“We are investigating this internally,” Pruitt responded, apparently in the false belief that the EPA is a private club that doesn’t have to answer to Congress or the American people.
Yet the most bizarre statement of the hearings came not from Pruitt, but from Republican David B. McKinley of West Virginia, who compared criticism of Pruitt to McCarthyism. For those of you who don’t recall, Joseph McCarthy was a Republican senator from Wisconsin who during the 1950s humiliated and persecuted innocent people—many of whom had no connection to government—for their personal political beliefs. Pruitt is a high-ranking public official who is being criticized for violations of ethical standards and government spending rules. It’s not quite the same.
To quote Republican Trey Gowdy’s advice to the EPA administrator last Friday, “You need to go into another line of work if you don’t want people to be mean to you, like maybe a monkwhere you don’t come in contact with anyone.”
I agree. A few years in a monastery would be good for Pruitt, and the country.