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Will Corruption and Arrogance Undo Trump’s Environmental Team as It Did Reagan’s?

by | Apr 1, 2018 | Government, Law & Policy

Pruitt and Zinke are unnecessary political liabilities; Pruitt may not last 

Left to right, top to bottom: President Donald J. Trump, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, President Ronald Reagan, Reagan EPA Administrator (1981-1983) Anne M. Gorsuch, Reagan Interior Secretary (1981-1983) James G. Watt.

Update, April 6, 2018: In the days since this article first appeared, the status of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has grown more controversial and more strained. More than sixty Democrats have formally demanded his ouster, while conservatives are praising his job as the deregulator-in-chief. Allegations of questionable behavior continue, ranging from the merely embarrassing (the lobbyists from whom he rented a room changed the locks because he wouldn’t leave) to the troubling (he lied when he said he did not know about exorbitant raises for favored staff). Though President Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly reportedly wants Pruitt gone, the president continues to express support — but that is standard fare, not only for Trump, but for the strangely analogous case of President Reagan and the brief tenures of his EPA Administrator and Interior Secretary. Read on. ~ JC

The grievances are familiar and frightening. The White House agenda is “designed to cripple Congressionally ordained natural-resource, environmental, and public-health programs that may interfere with maximum development.”[1] The EPA Administrator supports “sharp reductions in the budget for antipollution and conservation programs.” The Interior Secretary’s agenda is characterized by “speeding development of natural resources on public lands and by his accelerated program of offshore oil and gas site leasing.”[2]

These complaints are not about the Trump Administration. They are taken from NY Times stories in 1981 about the administration of President Ronald Reagan, his EPA Administrator, Anne Gorsuch, and Interior Secretary, James Watt, both of whom were gone after two years of scandal, and headlines that would rub raw any president. By all outward appearances, Trump’s EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has already earned himself a spot on a presidential house-cleaning list. 

Pruitt’s stay seems increasingly tenuous, given the latest news about a sweetheart deal on a Washington, DC rental, which the White House refuses to defend. Add to it: Travel excessespreoccupation with expensive security, including an entourage to Disneyland; unauthorized pay raises to favored staff; and untoward relationships with EPA-regulated industry. Despite a seeming consistency with Trump policies, Pruitt has brought an accumulation of baggage that adds unnecessary political weight to the shoulders of an already slumping White House.

Reagan, who took office with the electoral vote of 47 states, was demonstrably unwilling to gamble on environmental appointees who fell into public disfavor.

Zinke may be another candidate for the political trash heap. His support of importation of hunted African trophies brought out even conservative objections, forcing the president to reverse him. In response, Zinke formed an advisory committee defiantly stocked with trophy hunters. His expensive habits at taxpayers’ expense, like Pruitt’s, are unwelcome political irritants. The exemption Zinke unilaterally extended to Florida, to spare Republican Governor Rick Scott any oil and gas drilling, was a source of political flack that annoyed the president, who rightfully believes the governor’s support was already a lock.

As President Trump appears to be learning daily, it is not enough that members of his administration hold a hard line appealing to his base. Come an appointee’s judgement day, a president rarely extends the White House coattails to an official, even a loyal one, who displeases him, or who is a constant magnet for bad press and contrary public opinion, earned or unearned. President Reagan, who took office with the electoral vote of 47 states, winning even New York, California and Massachusetts, refused to gamble on his environmental officials when they fell into public disfavor.

Even given the current Republican Congress, Trump’s environmental team may be headed for the same slippery slide into the Congressional investigations and demands that Reagan’s faced. Some grievances are just too blatant too ignore. Gorsuch, briefly a political darling of the Reagan people, found her reputation in tatters after being accused of mismanagement and conflicts of interest and courting regulated industry. Eventually her disregard for the rule of law brought her contempt charges from Congress for refusing to turn over records concerning Superfund spending. Her controversies drew comparisons to Watergate. A New York Times editorial observed, “On becoming head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Anne Gorsuch inherited one of the most efficient and capable agencies of government. She has turned it into an Augean stable, reeking of cynicism, mismanagement and decay.”

In an striking analogue to that editorial, The Los Angeles Times wrote in a March 30 editorial headlined “The EPA’s Scott Pruitt Has to Go”: 

Pruitt’s a danger. It’s not so much that he’s a small-time abuser of the public trust living the high life with taxpayer dollars. The bigger issue is that when he’s not flying luxuriously around the world, he’s single-handedly imperiling the Earth by dismantling the EPA, undoing long-standing, bipartisan-supported rules and regulations and arguing the wrong side of every environmental issue at a moment when the fate of the planet is up for grabs. 

A resignation editorial in a major daily is an indication things are not going well, usually for an official who has been too tone deaf to see it coming. Interior Secretary Watt made the mistake of confusing Reagan’s decisive electoral victory with ironclad support for any convention he decided to flout. He maintained the unbudgeable, and unpopular, position that mainstream environmentalists are extremists, promoted sale of public lands, and then met his end when, in a moment of delusional invulnerability, told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, “We have every kind of mixture you can have. I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple. And we have talent.” Reagan forced Watt’s resignation after Republicans and Democrats said it was time, but not before pledging publicly that no Congressional pressure would cause Watt’s ouster. 

President Reagan, with an approval rating in the high thirties to low forties at the nadir of his environmental scandals, was unwilling to barter any bit of support on behalf of an environmental team that had become a liability. Trump, with approval numbers as anemic, has already demonstrated he will show any administration member the exit door, for far less reason than his EPA administrator has given him. Of the original presidential appointees left, Pruitt and Zinke may already be off the list of those who still have the president’s easily exhaustible loyalty. Watch for Pruitt to go first. 


  1. Oakes, J.B., Reaganvironmentalism, in The New York Times. 1981. p. 31.
  2. Shabecoff, P., Environmentalists Seeing Threat in White House Policy, Plan Fight, in The New York Times 1981. p. 1.