So, it turns out that even in the Trump administration, there is such a thing as too much.
Scott Pruitt resigned as EPA administrator on Thursday, after a tenure characterized by a mind-boggling procession of scandals. Where even to start? Pruitt was subject to more than a dozen federal investigations. He spent $43,000 on a soundproof telephone booth, in apparent violation of the law. He accepted a trip to Morocco arranged by a lobbyist. He tried to get the CEO of Chick-fil-A to help his wife start a restaurant. Etc., etc., etc.
The particular genius of Pruitt’s misbehavior was that all of his scandals tended to distract from one another. Any one of them might have felled a different cabinet secretary, but Pruitt used the latest scandal to stay one step ahead of the consequences of the last. Venal, sure — but none of them cohered into a single damning story line.
Give him credit: It was an innovative form of damage control — call it Pruitting. And it worked.
Or at least, it worked until Thursday.
What caused political gravity to catch up with him finally? Sad to say, but it’s unlikely that his fall has anything to do with his actual policies, including the dismantling of environmental regulations. If anything, that trend is likely to continue: His acting replacement, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, is every bit the deregulatory zealot that Pruitt was. Pruitt is leaving despite his disastrous policies, not because of them.
One possible takeaway is that the so-called adults in the White House may have some pull after all. It’s been reported that John F. Kelly, the president’s long-suffering chief of staff, had begged the president to fire Pruitt. The fact that the congressional GOP was beginning to put aside its tribal reluctance to investigate a fellow Republican, and had launched an inquiry into Pruitt’s spending, also may have been a meaningful step.
Of all explanations, that rings the truest. And it suggests that Trump’s fellow Republicans really do have the ability to rein in the administration.
Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who was investigating Pruitt’s spending, deserves credit for putting aside partisanship to scrutinize clear signs of official malfeasance. But the other side of the coin is that the public should take from this episode that when congressional Republicans don’t stand up to the administration’s excesses — which happens much more frequently — it’s because they don’t want to, and not because they can’t.
Scandal finally caught up with Scott Pruitt, and few are sorry to see him go. But it’s the fact that such a cartoonishly corrupt politician lasted as long as he did that is the real marker of how this administration and its Congressional enablers work.