I often remind myself that former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt eventually resigned amid a downpour of negative press coverage not because he had failed at his job, but, rather, despite his successes.
Pruitt will go down in history as one of the most aggressively deregulatory EPA administrators, a point in his favor among many Republican donors, politicians and pundits.
His misdeeds — the ridiculous security measures, multiple secret schedules and lavish travel costs — and more than that, the comical shamelessness with which he repeatedly carried them out, marred what Steve Bannon might otherwise have called a successful “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
Pruitt’s replacement, the former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, promises to tread quietly where Pruitt stomped. Wheeler’s roamed Beltway halls his entire professional life, and, with the appropriate nods to transparency and decorum, will likely continue carrying out the same corporate agenda Pruitt pursued.
“The overall direction of the agency I don’t really see changing much, but I think you’ll see a difference in the way I talk about issues,” he said last month.
So if Wheeler won’t go down amid scandal, who will? Who presents just the right mix of unabashed oligarchical aspirations and a distorted sense of right and wrong? There are plenty of candidates. Here are a few.
The interior secretary is an obvious first choice. For one thing, his trail of wrongdoings stretches years, back to his days as Navy SEAL. As secretary, Zinke appears to have taken his cues from the top, engaging in the kind of ridiculous behavior that could endanger what seems to be his primary mission, handing over public land for private use (as long as it’s not land in the aspiring Montana governor’s home state).
Let’s count the stories: Private, charter and helicopter air travel —which seems to be the standard in the Trump administration — without proper documentation; using those private flights to, among other things, address a donor’s NHL team and attend a fundraiser in the Virgin Islands; spending $140,000 on double doors for his office (negotiated down to $75,000 after public outcry); installing the “Big Buck Hunter Pro” video game in the Interior Department headquarters’ cafeteria (and oh yeah, briefly lifting the ban on trophy elephant imports); systematically re-assigning career and Native American civil servants; failing to disclose a financial interest in a firearms company; and engaging in a suspicious real estate transaction with the chairman of Halliburton, which emits what I hope will become known as a “$50-a-night condo stench.”
Remember when Zinke allegedly threatened Alaska’s senators in an effort to pressure them into supporting Republicans’ Obamacare repeal, even though one of them, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chairs the subcommittee that controls the funding for his agency? He’s not really a team player, yet another unfortunate trait that leaves him vulnerable to a shove out the government’s back door.
Oh yeah: Zinke insists he had “absolutely nothing to do” with the $300 million, no-bid contract to rewire Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria that was awarded to a two-person company from his hometown. He just happens to know the CEO, and the company just happened to have been financed by Trump donors. It happens!
I’ll stop here. The list goes on and on, and on, and this does not include stories that deal solely with regulatory matters or the Department’s lack of regard for science: the kind of people who could force Zinke out of his job could largely care less about those. What’s important, though, is that any one scandal could reach a critical mass of coverage — as did Scott Pruitt’s lobbyist condo deal — and re-shed light on all the others.
The education secretary has a leg up on the competition: Having come from an absurdly wealthy family — including a brother whose mercenary firm had to change its name multiple times because of all the people its employees murdered — she has experience walking unblinkingly past bonfires of impropriety.
Unlike Zinke, DeVos’ public service, such as it is, is inextricably linked with her prior life as a billionaire string-puller and anti-public school advocate.
The list: Allegedly telling the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to, essentially, simply dismiss cases that are too difficult; even before that, dismantling regulations meant to protect disabled students; eliminating a student loan fee-payment ceiling, a move that benefitted a former aide’s father in the millions; sabotaging a DOE unit investigating for-profit colleges; hiring those colleges’ former executives to work in the department and freezing relevant regulations governing the schools; and trying to eliminate the rule requiring that colleges demonstrate their ability to offer students gainful employment.
These admittedly policy-centric scandals, which otherwise aren’t fodder for a Pruitt-style collapse, still reflect what could become a damaging vulnerability for DeVos: As public school teachers nationwide flex their organizing muscles, and voters express their support for public schools, DeVos’ obsession with deregulation and privatization could itself become scandalous.
DeVos admitted on 60 Minutes earlier this year that she simply hadn’t visited struggling public schools. During a visit to New York City in May, she found time to visit Yeshiva Darchei Torah, in Queens, but not one public school run by the city. Similar visits have played out across the country.
The Trump Cabinet’s richest member thus faces a dilemma: how to continue to boost shifty private endeavors at the cost of America’s public schools and credible colleges, without becoming caricatured by a recent, profound metaphor: the $40 million, Cayman Islands-registered DeVos family yacht, drifting slowly away from the shores of Lake Erie.
On Tuesday, for example, he broke the story of a secret settlement Ross reached with a former partner who’d accused him of stealing a few million dollars from a joint venture and covering it up with bogus paperwork.
“It is difficult to imagine the possibility that a man like Ross, who Forbes estimates is worth some $700 million, might steal a few million from one of his business partners,” Alexander wrote. “Unless you have heard enough stories about Ross.”
TPM has previously broken down Alexander’s reporting on Ross in the past, namely, his work on the Commerce Secretary’s odd habit of short-selling stocks he shouldn’t have held onto in the first place.
It’s legal, maybe, but certainly extremely weird. And it’s happened more than once.
Maybe, as Alexander suggests, we shouldn’t be surprised at these misdealings. But, following the Pruitt model, any single development could bring all the others back to the fore, as well.
Then there’s how Ross actually does his job: He’s currently the subject of a multi-state lawsuit over the inclusion of a citizenship question on the census. Ross initially said the Justice Department had asked him, unprompted, to include the question in the survey. Documents released in the course of the suit have proven that, plainly, to be a Big Fat Lie.
The lawsuit could fail. The Census change could take effect. That in turn could lead to a population undercount in immigrant-populated cities, suburbs and small towns, who would then lose millions in federal funds and multiple seats in Congress. Those benefits would shift, as planned, to immigrant-sparse Republican strongholds.
If that happens, Ross shouldn’t even bother resigning. He’ll have already won.