Political poison: EPA head Scott Pruitt leaves Washington: The corrupt agency chief was not the only person to equate luxury with security | The Monthly

The corrupt agency chief was not the only person to equate luxury with security


American Dispatches by Richard Cooke

American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.

July 12, 2018

Political poison: EPA head Scott Pruitt leaves Washington

By Richard Cooke
The corrupt agency chief was not the only person to equate luxury with security


“I hate shows about people who are really, really good at their jobs.” Of all the good reasons to hate The West Wing, I haven’t heard this bettered. It somehow captures all the hollow promise of early second-millennium technocracy, the false and shining moment where problems seemed more rhetorical than material. What Vanity Fair called the “Sorkinization” of politics is still in effect, and Democratic DC is full of staffers, reporters, advisers and others who have not just consciously modelled themselves on characters but moulded themselves into them.

Who, then, do the Republicans imitate? If the short and inglorious career of Scott Pruitt is any guide, the answer seems to be Trump. Even in a cabinet crowded with the ethically suspect, he is (or was) a stand-out. As the attorney-general of Oklahoma he sued the Environmental Protection Agency more than a dozen times, trying to overturn the regulation of pollution. Trump made him head of the agency instead, saving Pruitt the trips to court.

He began abusing his office immediately, but so ostentatiously that the result was something like conspicuous corruption. By the end of his tenure, media struggled to itemise the excesses: the $43,000 secret phone booth in his office; the multimillion-dollar security detail sent to source hotel moisturiser and a used Trump-brand mattress; in June, the House Appropriations Committee had to pass an amendment banning Pruitt from purchasing any pen worth more than $50; weeks later he spent $1599.68 on eight pairs of “tactical pants”.

Those tactical pants might indeed have been a tactic – there is a theory that Pruitt, who is said to be intelligent, could have been trying to prove something. He is famously obsessed with secrecy (his guards followed him even within the EPA building, an honour usually reserved for Darth Vader), so the fact that his indiscretions were so indiscreet makes them seem deliberate, and one thesis is that he was vice-signalling, trying to prove his Trumpiness to Trump himself.

The plan backfired – Pruitt was merely forced to resign – but he got some of it right in the process. For one thing, he understood the essential pettiness of Trumpism. Back in 1990, the satirical magazine Spy orchestrated a prank where they sent celebrities cheques for tiny amounts of money. They started with cheques for $1.11, and sent them to 58 people, Cher, Henry Kissinger, and Trump included. Twenty-six cashed them. They sent cheques for $0.64 – thirteen cashed them. They sent cheques for $0.13 – two people cashed them: arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, and Donald Trump.

This miserliness is not really about the cash – it can’t be, for thirteen cents – it’s about a sense of the absolute, a necessity to take advantage at literally every opportunity. The monetary miserliness is just a subset of a moral miserliness that is predicated on the complete absence of kindness, humility, grace, intellect, creativity, honesty, loyalty, or anything else redemptive.

Pruitt was unusual among Trump nominees for his relative poverty – he was “only” a multimillionaire (at best) – and he may have overcompensated, winding up a kind of nouveau-nouveau riche in the process. His postures reveal the neo-feudalism that has taken hold in America, where the precarities of the lower and middle classes have to not only be overcome, but quarantined.

It is telling that Pruitt claimed that taking luxurious first-class flights was necessary for security reasons. These reasons were dubious – he would stay in less opulent hotels against security experts’ advice, and one of the alleged threats used as justification was a magazine cover where someone had drawn a moustache on Pruitt’s face. But however ludicrous his cover story was, the idea that luxury is necessary for security is widespread in America.

If anything, a first-class seat rather than a charter jet is on the modest side (though Pruitt did ask about a private charter before someone put their foot down). Two years ago, the televangelists Kenneth Copeland and Jesse Duplantis compared and defended their private jets while on air: Duplantis insisted that God had told him personally to buy the plane, while Copeland claimed that commercial airlines were, in this “dope-filled world”, comparable to flying in “a long tube with a bunch of demons. And it’s deadly.”

Copeland’s own audience members fly coach (if they fly at all), but in his vision they sit alongside a bunch of dope-filled, deadly demons. It is hard to see how the plebs don’t take umbrage, but many of them share a belief that public space is inherently dangerous, even Satanic. They even have their own lower-rent version: calling the police on black swimmers or Hispanic picnickers, black firefighters or boys wearing hoodies, even when they know that dialling the digits can have fatal results.

John Steinbeck never wrote the quote often attributed to him, that the American poor see themselves “not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires”. Instead he said something about “temporarily embarrassed capitalists”. Sometimes it seems that the rich are envied most not for their cars or their lovers, but for their fences and their panic rooms, their healthcare and their schools: their safety, in other words. The richer you are, the safer you are, and any moment not spent making yourself richer is therefore dangerous.

By the time of his ousting, something strange had happened to Pruitt: he had become a source of amusement. Media called him a “comically corrupt grifter” and “ridiculous”; The Washington Post reported that “Even White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders could not suppress a wry smile last week when asked during a media briefing about the EPA chief’s enlistment of a different aide to hunt for a secondhand mattress from the Trump International Hotel in Washington,” to furnish an apartment used by Pruitt.

“I couldn’t comment on the specifics of the furniture used in his apartment … and certainly would not attempt to,” Sanders said, drawing laughter from reporters. The apartment itself was owned by a fossil-fuel lobbyist, and Pruitt eventually skipped out on the discount rent, after which the locks were changed.

His reaction was pure absurdity: he said he was “dumbfounded” that anyone saw an ethical issue with accepting below-market rates for use of a condo owned by a lobbyist who was in the middle of pushing a case he was “regulating”.

I guess it is funny, the yawning discrepancy between principle and reality. A political figure is not supposed to be corrupt, corruption is not supposed to be open, regulators are supposed to regulate. The story is also picaresque: Pruitt was making his amoral way in an amoral world, and it was only pushing things too far that stopped him getting further.

“I believe you are serving as President today because of God’s providence,” Pruitt wrote in his resignation letter. “I believe that same providence brought me into your service. I pray as I have served you that I have blessed you and enabled you to effectively lead the American people. Thank you again Mr. President for the honor of serving you and I wish you Godspeed in all that you put your hand to.”

There is talk that Pruitt may return to Oklahoma, such disgraces no longer prohibitive to a refreshed career. The Wall Street Journal began its editorial in his defence by claiming that “the permanent progressive state finally ran Scott Pruitt out of the Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday, and the tragedy is that Mr. Pruitt gave his enemies so much ammunition.” It’s a fantasy as distant from reality as anything in The West Wing.


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Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. He is also The Saturday Paper’s sports editor.


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