Pruitt's Almighty Feast Had Trump's Blessing

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When he gave notice on Thursday afternoon that he would soon be out the door at the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt invoked the Almighty in his resignation letter to President Donald Trump.

“I believe you are serving as President today because of God’s providence,” he wrote. “I believe that same providence brought me into your service.”

Pruitt’s departure from public service will mean forgoing a few of the perks and powers that he seems to think divine intervention brought his way, such as:

  • A Washington condo owned by a lobbyist, with a bedroom rented to him for $50 per night;
  • A $43,000 soundproof meeting booth in his office that violated federal spending law;
  • Expensive first-class and private jet travel;
  • Scoring Rose Bowl tickets from a PR firm representing energy companies;
  • Being able to lobby Chick-fil-A to consider giving his wife a franchise;
  • Being able to ask aides to find a lucrative post for his wife with the Republican Attorneys General Association;
  • Being able to ask various aides and members of his security detail to run errands for him like fetching his dry cleaning and buying hand lotion, snacks and a mattress from the Trump International Hotel;
  • Apparently being able to use secret calendars to avoid maintaining written records of meetings;
  • The power to demote or intimidate lots of EPA employees who complained about all of this.

Rest assured that providence will still watch over the EPA despite Pruitt’s exit. His successor as the agency’s acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, is a former lobbyist for the coal industry. And the president – who remained a staunch defender of Pruitt from the moment his myriad problems began seeping out publicly almost a year ago – put a happy gloss on the departure when he praised Pruitt for being a “terrific guy” and for doing an “outstanding job.”

One lesson we can draw from Pruitt’s resignation is that there are plenty of like-minded and conflicted souls in Trump’s Washington ready to fill his shoes. Another is that the president and his family have set such a low bar for ethical conduct that you can understand how Pruitt might have taken their cue and decided to go hog wild himself. As it’s turned out, Trump hasn’t drained the swamp in Washington – he's just stocked it with bigger alligators. “Outstanding job” has been redefined in some cases as “grifting” and in others as “feasting on the taxpayer’s dime.”

Let’s not forget Tom Price, who stepped down last September from his perch atop Health and Human Services after it was revealed he had booked a string of expensive, taxpayer-funded charter flights. (His final email message to HHS employees also cited providence: “Duty is Ours — Results are the Lord’s!”) Trump fired David Shulkin, who ran Veterans Affairs, in March after it was disclosed that Shulkin took his wife and his security detail on an 11-day, taxpayer-funded European trip that involved only a few days of business (but managed to include two free tickets to a tennis match at Wimbledon).

Meanwhile, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has drawn attention for financial conflicts of interest that have dogged his entire tenure. Ross owns companies that import auto parts and South Korean steel, businesses directly affected by his role helping Trump craft trade policy. Ross also has investments in companies co-owned by the Chinese government, a shipping firm with links to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s son-in-law, and apparently continues to hold a stake in the Bank of Cyprus. (Ross was also once the vice-chairman of the bank, an institution that has attracted the interest of Special Counsel Robert Mueller because Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had accounts there.)

Last month, Ross noted that he didn’t engage in insider trading when he shorted the stock of his shipping firm shortly before news reports emerged about its links to Putin. On Monday, Ross disclosed that he had also shorted two other stocks as part of what he called “technical ways of disposing the stocks.” He’s taken advantage of this technicality five times while serving in Trump’s cabinet.

Over at the Interior Department, that agency’s inspector general launched a review last week of a private land deal involving Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the chairman of Halliburton Co. Zinke holds sway on policies involving new energy drilling on public land. Zinke has acknowledged meeting with the Halliburton chairman, David Lesar, and other businesspeople in his government office to chat about development deals, but he has criticized reporting on the discussions as “fake news.”

The president’s daughter Ivanka, who serves as a senior White House adviser, still owns an eponymous apparel and accessories licensing business that sources some of its clothing in China and operates globally. Her husband, Jared Kushner, has had a jack-of-all-trades portfolio as White House adviser, with a special emphasis on foreign policy and the Middle East. Kushner and his family also have business ties to firms in the Middle East that raise the same conflict of interest questions looming over his wife and other inhabitants of Trumplandia. According to the couple’s most recent financial disclosure forms, they earned at least $82 million in outside income last year while working in the White House.

Trump himself sets the ethical tone in all of this, of course. He hasn’t effectively cordoned himself off from the Trump Organization’s business activities and he remains the most financially conflicted president of the last 100 years. Hundreds of businesses, trade groups, foreign governments and other entities with matters before the federal government have patronized Trump-owned properties since he became president, according to Public Citizen, an advocacy group. Trump’s campaign, Republican organizations, and government agencies have spent at least $16.1 million at Trump-owned properties since he declared his presidential bid in 2015, according to a recent report from ProPublica.

It’s no wonder, then, that the president and the Republicans who back him sat on their hands over the past year as Pruitt’s problems festered. That logjam was broken, in part, by a schoolteacher and mother named Kristin Mink who politely questioned Pruitt about his conflicts and freeloading when she happened upon him at a restaurant on Monday. Video footage of Mink asking Pruitt to resign went viral.

“If you’re doing your job properly as a civil servant, you want to hear from the people who are paying your taxes,” Mink said when interviewed on MSNBC about her encounter with Pruitt. “And I think that it’s my, it’s my right as a citizen, it’s my responsibility as a mother, and the same thing goes for everybody else in America.”

Mink – and everybody else in America for whom she provided an example – will have to avoid becoming numb to all of this, though. Trump has a boundless interest in making money, and as long as he continues ignoring the financial conflicts of interest that tar his presidency, others on his White House team are likely to follow suit. 

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.