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Image: Scott Pruitt, then-administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, in Washington in 2017.
Scott Pruitt, then-administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, in Washington in 2017.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Why Scott Pruitt’s first Senate ad in Oklahoma matters

Under the usual model, politicians of dubious character run for office, then get caught up in damaging scandals. Scott Pruitt wants to flip this.


Under the traditional model, politicians of dubious character run for office, ignore legal and/or ethical boundaries, and get caught up in damaging scandals. In Oklahoma, Republican Scott Pruitt hopes to turn the model upside down, getting caught up in scandals and then running for office.

The Washington Post noted Pruitt’s new ad in support of his U.S. Senate candidacy.

If you’re a Trump-era Republican accused of misconduct, you have a strategy ready to go — accuse liberals of making it all up. It didn’t work for Charles Herbster in Nebraska, but the first ad from former EPA chief Pruitt, now running for U.S. Senate in Oklahoma, suggests that the scandals that drove him from office were smears. “I had enemies. The New York Times. The Washington Post,” Pruitt says, before tossing a newspaper in a garbage can. “They think they canceled me, but guess what? I’m back.”

The full 60-second ad is online here. To my surprise, Pruitt spent nearly the entire minute speaking to the camera, but managed to avoid mentioning his home state of Oklahoma.

As regular readers probably recall, before Pruitt became a scandal-plagued EPA administrator, he was a scandal-plagued Republican official in Oklahoma. In fact, ahead of his tenure in Trump’s cabinet, he faced questions about hiding official emails that documented his cooperation with the oil and gas industries.

The Oklahoman also used multiple email accounts, including conducting official business on a private account, despite telling Congress the opposite.

Pruitt nevertheless took the reins at the EPA in 2017, and to the delight of the right and allied polluters, he got to work dismantling environmental protections. But in the process, the Republican abused his office to such a ridiculous extent that the Oklahoman found himself at the center of at least 14 investigations.

Facing allegations of corruption, abuses of power, and misuse of public resources, Pruitt hired a criminal defense attorney to help advise him in May 2018. Two months later, he resigned under a cloud of scandal.

He then did exactly what you probably guessed he did: Pruitt became an energy lobbyist.

The Republican, who formerly served as a state attorney general, now hopes to parlay this extraordinary recent history into a Senate campaign, and his opening pitch to GOP primary voters is that they should vote for him because journalists took note of his alleged misconduct — which in Pruitt’s mind, necessarily means his misconduct wasn’t real.

NBC News’ Benjy Sarlin summarized the broader dynamic perfectly: “There’s been a pretty rapid Trump-era evolution from ‘Scandals won’t bring down candidates like they used to’ to ‘If I run for office, I can move past my old scandal’ to ‘My scandal is a positive thing that shows that I’ve been unfairly victimized by the right enemies.’”

Pruitt, of course, isn’t the only one thinking along these lines. In fact, the only member of Team Trump who’s as scandal-tarnished as Pruitt — aside from the former president himself, of course — is former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. And what’s he up to? Wouldn’t you know it, the Montana Republican also recently launched a congressional campaign.

In theory, effectively saying, “Vote for me because people you don’t like criticized me” seems like a pitch destined to fail. In practice, folks like Pruitt and Zinke have a sense of what the GOP base wants to hear, and they might very well end up on Capitol Hill anyway.