I spent some time over the weekend counting up the number of federal investigations surrounding EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and I came up with a baker’s dozen. Donald Trump’s team has developed an unfortunate reputation for scandal and corruption, but even among these guys, the Oklahoma Republican stands out as … unique.
But consider what we’ve learned about the far-right EPA chief since Monday afternoon:
1. Pruitt has been accused of lying to Congress while giving testimony under oath.
2. Pruitt appears to have done a highly lucrative favor for a major Trump supporter who helped Pruitt get his job.
3. Two of Pruitt’s top aides abruptly resigned.
4. The Associated Press reported that the lobbyist whose wife rented a condo to Pruitt for $50 a night “sought EPA committee posts for a lobbying client, according to a newly released EPA memo.”
5. The Washington Post reported that Richard Smotkin, a former Comcast lobbyist and longtime Pruitt associate, helped arrange Pruitt’s controversial and trip to Morocco last year. Taxpayers ended up paying for the trip, which Pruitt took for reasons that the EPA has struggled to explain.
6. The New York Times reported that a former lobbyist for foreign governments played a central role in attempting to set up a trip for Pruitt to Australia, and then “took steps to disguise his role.”
7. TPM reported that in early 2017, after Pruitt took the reins at the EPA, he “directed his future chief of staff to explore the creation of an EPA office in Pruitt’s hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, even though an EPA office with authority over Oklahoma already existed in Dallas, Texas.”
Even by 2018 standards, this is an astonishing 48 hours for a high-profile cabinet official – and yet, Pruitt will almost certainly keep his job. It’s worth understanding why.
There are, to be sure, competing explanations. One could make a very credible case that the right – lawmakers, donors, conservative media, et al – still likes Pruitt and his regressive environmental agenda, so the White House feels some pressure to leave him where he is. One could also argue, on a related note, that much of the criticisms of Pruitt’s apparent corruption is coming from journalists and good-government advocates, and the Trump World clearly doesn’t much care what they think. In fact, Pruitt keeps flattering and agreeing with the president, further cementing his status on the team.
Others have noted, accurately, that this president has a high tolerance for corruption, which means Trump simply doesn’t see Pruitt’s antics as a problem. Of course, there’s also the practical considerations to consider: maybe Trump doesn’t want to see the EPA chief go because the White House realizes that confirming his successor would be extremely difficult.
And while all of these arguments have merit, and very likely contribute to Pruitt’s political survival, I think a Simpsons episode from Season 11 offers valuable insights.
In the episode, C. Montgomery Burns goes to a doctor’s office, and the physician tells him he’s “the sickest man in the United States.” The doctor adds, “You have everything,” including “several diseases that have just been discovered.”
When Burns, disheartened, says that the prognosis sounds like bad news, the physician says, “Well, you’d think so, but all of your diseases are in perfect balance.” He tells the plutocrat about what he calls the “Three Stooges Syndrome,” in which no one ailment can doom Burns because they’re all trying to break through an open doorway simultaneously.
I think something similar is happening with Scott Pruitt. Unlike, say, Tom Price, who suffered from one scandal and was forced to resign, Pruitt has dozens of scandals. No one – the media, Congress, the public at large – seems able to keep up with all of them. It’s dizzying to even try.
And that almost certainly works in the EPA chief’s favor because like Monty Burns, all of Pruitt’s scandals are “in perfect balance.” If one brutal controversy were to break through the open doorway, he’d be finished, but with a ridiculous number of brutal controversies unfolding at the same time, they clog up the doorway and keep Pruitt in place.
I don’t know if the “Three Stooges Syndrome” is sustainable indefinitely, but this dynamic is proving to be quite successful for now.