A colleague leaned into my office to ask if I’d heard that the chair of EPA’s Superfund task force was just fined $125,000 by the FDIC and barred from future banking activities for engaging in “violation[s] of law or regulation, unsafe or unsound practice[s]” as CEO of an Oklahoma bank.
In any other administration, it would have been a major scandal for that official and the man who appointed him, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. But a Google search only turned up one news report about it, from The Oklahoman.
That conversation happened about two hours after another coworker emailed me a report that the EPA Inspector General had announced an investigation of Pruitt for his frequent taxpayer-funded travel to Oklahoma, where some think he wants to run for the US Senate.
That story was picked up by several reporters, but didn’t make it onto the Washington Post home page – crowded out by scandals about Sheriff Arpaio, a Trump Organization deal with Russia during the election, and the climate change-driven deluge from Hurricane Harvey.
The point is that seven months in, the Trump administration is riddled with scandals, controversies, and conflicts of interest. It almost seems as if they escape proper scrutiny of each one by doing something worse the next day to divert our attention.
So what are activists, citizens, and journalists supposed to do to hold them accountable? Here are three suggestions:
1. Connect the Dots
Most scandals fit a pattern. When a new one pops up, remind your Facebook friends, Twitter followers, and readers about the larger pattern and previous examples. That will build the case for accountability and keep past breaches from being forgotten.
For instance, when Pruitt nominates someone like former tobacco industry shill Michael Dourson to run the EPA toxics office, remind everyone Pruitt also put chemical industry lobbyist Nancy Beck in the same program, and wants coal lobbyist Michael Wheeler to be the EPA’s number two official. It’s not just one bad appointment; it’s a takeover by industry.
2. Focus on the Damaging Policies
I’ve speculated about whether Pruitt is running for the Senate or even President. But far more important is his attack on safeguards that limit smog, toxic mercury, and other pollutants that hurt our kids. His odd legal theories are disturbing, but not nearly as much as the fact that he’s doing nothing to limit dangerous climate pollution. That doesn’t mean we ignore his conflicts of interest or insider appointments, but we should put them in the context of the dangerous policies they will pursue.
3. Don’t Get Demoralized
Just because we haven’t stopped Pruitt’s or Trump’s attacks on clean air and water yet, doesn’t mean we’re not making progress. We are building a strong case that they are unfit to be stewards of our environment, and it’s working. Trump’s approval on environmental issues is even lower than on other issues. Pruitt has lost several recent court cases, as judges begin to see that he is ignoring the law.
The Era of Trump isn’t easy for those who care about our natural environment (or the rule of law, or American values, for that matter). But the White House is counting on the public and the media to get overwhelmed, to dismiss all politicians as the same, and give up paying attention.
If we do that, then they truly will have won in a landslide.