There used to be a running joke on TV's Saturday Night Live about what is now President Trump's favorite show, Fox and Friends, and its penchant for making goofy, unforced errors. At the end of the skit, a mock host would announce there were a few corrections of various mistakes and false statements earlier in the broadcast. A list starts scrolling slowly up the screen, then accelerates to include dozens of clarifications, as the TV viewer struggles to keep up with "President Obama does not want to take away T-shirt guns" or "Most women have only two breasts."
I instantly thought of the "Fox and Friends" parody the other night when CNN did a report on the massive black ethical storm clouds that loom over Trump's handpicked director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt. The network ran its own scroll of Pruitt's misconduct — a list of mini- and maxi-scandals that filled the screen and then kept going and going.
The Pruitt scandals range from the seriously unethical to the truly bizarre — episodes that would in fact seem more appropriate on SNL than on CNN. Like the time Pruitt dispatched an aide to inquire on getting a cheap used mattress from Trump's Washington hotel or asking his around-the-clock security detail (why does an EPA director whom most average citizens wouldn't recognize even need that?) to pick up his favorite moisturizing lotion from the Ritz-Carlton hotels, or fetch his dry cleaning.
But, honestly, it's hard to think of a category of official misconduct that Pruitt — who, odd as it sounds, was the top law-enforcement officer of Oklahoma before he came to Washington to flout our laws — hasn't engaged in. Using his clout as EPA chief to inquire about a Chick-fil-A franchise. His bizarre spending practices, including $43,000 for a private phone booth that sounded to many like the ill-fated "Cone of Silence" on TV's classic Get Smart.
To say that Pruitt is a tad paranoid is a bit of an understatement. Since his arrival in early 2017, he's spent three times as much on bodyguards and security than his predecessors, and flown first class — at a cost to taxpayers of $105,000 — because of alleged "threats to his safety." But the even bigger problem for America's top environmental official is an ethical compass gone haywire, whether it's the role of lobbyists in setting up expensive and somewhat pointless trips to Morocco or Rome that were billed to taxpayers, or the fact that a lobbyist with business before the EPA put Pruitt up in a D.C. crash pad with the impossible name-your-own-price-tool of $50 a night.
Am I being too hard on Scott Pruitt? No. To the contrary, I'm leaving out a ton of stuff, because by now you get the general idea. Indeed, there's a running joke on social media that the Pruitt scandals have become the Mad Libs of American politics. Some of you remember the booklets where you'd complete sentences with bizarre phrases — like "pick up moisturizing lotion," or "get a Chick-fil-A franchise for wife."
Anyway, the biggest question hovering over Pruitt is quite simply this: How does a public official with so many scandals — any one of which might have dominated cable's 24/7 news cycle during a quiet, normal time in American life (i.e., when children aren't getting locked up in cages) — not get fired?
Like most things in Trump's America, there's not a simple answer. But start with this: The organizing premise of Trump's presidency, and his surprisingly successful mission of bringing authoritarian government to the United States, is to convince people that "nothing matters anymore." Trump has already shown the world that he can lie with impunity, flagrantly violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution as well as two-plus centuries of ethical norms, and monkey around with the administration of justice — and other than the predictable wailing from the media and his critics on the left, no one will do a damn thing to stop him. Certainly not the GOP-led Congress, which has taken a hard pass on oversight when it comes to Team Trump's abuses.
Pruitt's scandals, in this context, are not so much a bug in the system as a feature — flooding the zone with so much unethical flotsam and jetsam that once would have been fatal, but which in 2018 are just part of a Trump tsunami that feels unstoppable. If we do nothing about an EPA director openly violating a slew of ethics laws and guidelines, why would do anything about a president who obstructed justice in a criminal probe over whether Russia helped him get elected?
But there's also this: Scott Pruitt doesn't care about how much of your tax dollars he wastes on unnecessary first-class travel or paranoid security measures — because he doesn't care about the fundamental mission of the EPA — protecting our air and water. As Oklahoma's attorney general, Pruitt regularly sued the EPA when the agency simply tried to do its job. This is a trait that Pruitt shares with most of Trump's cabinet, whether it's the neurosurgeon at HUD who knows nothing and cares little about public housing, or the attorney general who doesn't believe in voting rights.
But in Pruitt's case, his lack of concern about pollution fits perfectly with the broader goal of his so-called "Environmental Protection Agency," which is eliminating the past "shackles" of ensuring clean drinking water and breathable air, or reducing the long-term threats from climate change, that have held back our dirty-fuels industries like coal or Big Oil and the nation's myriad manufacturers of toxic chemicals. Pruitt's personal scandals not only haven't prevented this great dismantling, but they're drawn attention away from his biggest scandal of rewarding Big Pollution. Not wonder Trump, when asked about Pruitt and his faulty ethics earlier this month, said, "Scott Pruitt is doing a great job within the walls of the EPA. I mean, we're setting records."
No one is sure what Trump meant by setting records. Did Pruitt set some kind of record for most outrageous sellout when the EPA balked at banning the toxic chemical chlorpyrifos, even after scientists had shown the substance is harmful to children? Did he set the all-time mark for the largest amount of streams and waterways stripped of protection under the Clean Water Act? Or maybe it was the record for the fastest cave-in to industry lobbyists, when the EPA decided to scale back the scope of its investigations into the impact from hazardous chemicals?
Or may the president meant that "we're setting records" for average monthly global temperatures — even as Pruitt helped lead the government's charge to withdraw from the Paris climate accord and make the United States something of a planetary pariah for ignoring the crisis caused by global warming. Perhaps the most appalling thing about Pruitt's comical "Mad Libs" scandals are how they've sucked the oxygen — pun intended — out of issues like this:
Ironically, the melting Antarctica story came out right at the moment that America is debating our morals — specifically, how much we care about the world's children. And to be certain, nothing can — or should — trump the crisis of the caged and crying child who sits right in front of us. But the sharp rise in sea level forecast by the rapid ice melting in Antarctica will create a global migration crisis — with famine and other hardships — that could effect not thousands of children, but millions.
This is the real Scott Pruitt scandal — and here is how we let him get away with it. When we show that no one cares about Pruitt's complete lack of ethics in running the EPA, we're also demonstrating that the body politic doesn't really care about the environment, period. It's hard to look at Pruitt's cozy and contented ties to industry lobbyists and not conclude that, indeed, nothing matters anymore — not even, apparently, the melting of the polar ice caps and the disruption of life on earth.