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What policy impact does Scott Pruitt leave at EPA?

Controversial and embattled EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has resigned. For months, Pruitt survived scandal after scandal, brushing off calls for his firing from members of both parties. On the policy front, Pruitt spearheaded President Trump's promised agenda of deregulation of key industries. William Brangham reports, and Judy Woodruff learns more from Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Scott Pruitt, the controversial and embattled head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is out. President Trump announced his resignation this afternoon.

    In his departing letter, Pruitt said he was leaving because of — quote — "unrelenting attacks on me personally, my family" that are — quote — "unprecedented and have taken a sizable toll on all of us."

    He also praised Mr. Trump for the agenda they had jointly pursued to — quote — "get results for the American people, both with improved environmental outcomes as well as historical regulatory reform at an unprecedented pace."

    As William Brangham explains, Pruitt's agenda was the source of deep debate, but increasingly so was his personal conduct in the office.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    For months, Scott Pruitt survived one scandal after another. He brushed off calls from members of both parties for his firing. But, just a month ago, the president still said he backed his EPA chief.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    Well, Scott Pruitt is doing a great job within the walls of the EPA. I mean, we're setting records. Outside, he's being attacked very viciously by the press. And I'm not saying that he's blameless, but we will see what happens.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    That was before the most recent controversies emerged, which included allegations that Pruitt asked an aide to find a high-paying job for his wife.

    Pruitt was under at least a dozen federal investigations by the EPA's inspector general, by Congress, and the White House over questions of extravagant spending, security practices and potential conflicts of interest and abuse of power.

    One probe is looking into how Pruitt secured a $50-per-night deal on a bedroom in a Capitol Hill condo co-owned by the wife of an energy industry lobbyist. He drew scrutiny for luxury travel during his first year in office, with trips totaling over $100,000, including many first-class flights.

    Pruitt also was criticized for giving some of his aides unauthorized pay raises, which Pruitt initially denied.

  • SCOTT PRUITT:

    I found out this yesterday and I corrected the action, and we are in the process of finding out how it took place and correcting it.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    When some staff at the EPA questioned his practices, Pruitt allegedly retaliating against them with demotions and reassignments.

    In congressional testimony this spring, Pruitt pushed back against his critics.

  • SCOTT PRUITT:

    Those who have attacked the EPA and attacked me are doing so because they want to derail the president's agenda and undermine this administration's priorities. I'm simply not going to let that happen.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    On the policy front, during his tenure as EPA administrator, Pruitt spearheaded the president's promised agenda of deregulating key industries like oil, gas and chemicals.

    In his first year in office, Pruitt reversed or started the process of undoing at least 40 regulations, and he was instrumental in urging the president to withdraw from the Paris climate accords.

    Andrew Wheeler, who is a former coal lobbyist and current deputy administrator of the EPA, will take over as acting head of the agency on Monday.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm William Brangham.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, for more on Pruitt's resignation and his impact, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post has been breaking several stories about the EPA administrator, and she is in The Post newsroom.

    Welcome back to the program, Juliet.

    So there have been so many accusations about Scott Pruitt. Do we know what finally made the difference?

  • JULIET EILPERIN:

    I think it was a combination of the fact that two of his top aides testified behind closed doors, two staffers before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and really confirmed much of what The Washington Post and other outlets have been reporting in terms of Mr. Pruitt's approach to spending, some of his management decisions.

    So that was really instrumental. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly had been pushing for months, as had some other White House officials, to try to get Mr. Trump to replace his EPA administrator. And that, coupled with a story just posted by The New York Times this afternoon detailing alterations to the calendar, expanding on something that other outlets had reported earlier in the week, really contributed to his departure.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, just quickly, remind us, paint a portrait of what he did as EPA administrator.

  • JULIET EILPERIN:

    In terms of policy or in terms of management?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Yes, in terms of management.

  • JULIET EILPERIN:

    So, in terms of management, there's a whole slew of things that Mr. Pruitt did.

    First, he really spent lavishly the taxpayers' funds on his own — you know, his own purposes, including consistently traveling first class, staying in high-end hotels, eating at fancy restaurants, and expanding his security detail, to the extent that, again, that and,you know, retaining higher-end SUVs for his transportation, a whole slew of expenses related to his own operations.

    On top of that, he entered into, for example, a controversial rental arrangement for the first six months of his tenure, with the wife of a lobbyist, herself a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, where he only paid $50 a night on the nights that he stayed there.

    And that really raised questions, especially as, over time, it emerged that the husband of this lobbyist who was the chairman of the law firm Williams & Jensen had repeatedly contacted the EPA on official business, raising questions about conflict of interest.

    There were other expenses, including the fact that Mr. Pruitt installed a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office, and that there were charges of retaliation against both career and political aides who raised concerns about some of these decisions.

    And so it really was a combination of all of these factors that ultimately put him in an untenable position with more than a dozen investigations on Capitol Hill, within EPA's inspector general's office and elsewhere.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But through all of that, until today, he maintained the confidence of the president. The president still said very favorable things about him in accepting his resignation. Why did the president stick with him for so long?

  • JULIET EILPERIN:

    The two men had a personal rapport, something that Mr. Pruitt cultivated over time.

    He really — you know, usually, the EPA administrator is not one of the most influential Cabinet members, but Mr. Pruitt was quite skillful in terms of reaching out to the president, carrying through with many of the policy items he wanted, but also just spending time with him.

    He would eat frequently in the White House mess so that he could swing by the Oval Office periodically. He commiserated with President Trump about staffers who leaked and the problems in the media and the Russia investigation and how that was unfair.

    So the fact is that the two, they actually hit it off when they first met and when President Trump decided that he should be his EPA administrator. And over time, that tie deepened, which is what really sustained him until today.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, when all is said and done, Juliet, what of his — the work that he did is long-lasting? What is his legacy? What portion of it may be up to be changed because it's being challenged in court?

  • JULIET EILPERIN:

    Well, you have identified the key question, which is that Mr. Pruitt as EPA administrator set in motion a series of policy rollbacks on everything including, you know, a slew of climate policies enacted by the Obama administration, as well as other things having to do with how — you know, what happens with regulation of water bodies and other air pollution and pesticides and you name it.

    All of these policy proposals, some of which were quite rushed, are being challenged in court by environmental groups and others. And the jury is really out on how that litigation is going to play out over time.

    So I think we won't know for several months, maybe even a year or so, in terms of what is the actual policy impact that Scott Pruitt will have exercised as EPA administrator.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And the man who has been named as his acting — as the next acting administrator pretty much follows along the same line of views.

  • JULIET EILPERIN:

    Absolutely.

    He embraces all the same priorities in terms of these regulatory rollbacks. Andrew Wheeler is a former EPA employee, as well as a top aide for Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and a former lobbyist for coal companies and other firms.

    And so there's no question he's equally committed to the policy agenda that Scott Pruitt has — and President Trump have pursued. And he's quite skilled in terms of being a policy expert. So there's no question that EPA will continue on the same policy trajectory. And how it plays out over time is something that we will be covering.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Juliet Eilperin doing excellent reporting for so many months now, Juliet, thank you very much.

  • JULIET EILPERIN:

    Thank you, Judy.

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