EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has committed many fireable offenses in the past several months, but his job probably wasn’t in any danger until he flubbed an appearance on Fox News this week, which makes it all but certain his cable news-obsessed boss saw him look ridiculous.
Pressed unexpectedly to explain how two loyal political aides had secured five-figure raises—raises the White House had earlier rejected—Pruitt claimed ignorance (sad!) but wouldn’t quite commit to holding anyone accountable (weak!).
Pruitt faces even greater jeopardy now that his representations to Fox (and thus to Donald Trump) have been proven false. Two EPA officials and a White House official told the Washington Post Pruitt “instructed staff to award substantial pay boosts to both women, who had worked in different roles for him in Oklahoma.”
It was helpful of Pruitt to avoid complete self-destruction until the conservative punditocracy had attached itself to him unambiguously. “The media & other resistance leaders biggest target is Scott Pruitt,” tweeted Trump-apologist Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist. “He’s easily the most effective cabinet secretary. Would be huge victory for them, and huge loss for Trump, if they can pressure POTUS here.”
Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel—a reliable weathervane for Republican Party consensus—initially sought to defend Pruitt from allegations of corruption, but when new revelations torpedoed her defense, she retreated to the incontestable point that Pruitt is good because liberals don’t like him.
Yes, and I’m still waiting for a correction of the entire eight Obama years. ? The good news is that with all EPAs amazing work (repealing Clean Power Plan, WOTUS, cafe standards) that really is starting to happen. https://t.co/YZQgDDAIei
— Kimberley Strassel (@KimStrassel) April 5, 2018
The point here is not to draw attention to the fact that conservatives are willing to overlook depravity when large partisan or ideological spoils are on the line. Most conservatives demonstrated that quite plainly during and after the 2016 election. We are instead plumbing the depths of public corruption (and perhaps criminality) the right is willing to tolerate as the price of not capitulating to “the left.” It’s a kind of trial run for the not-altogehter-hypothetical moment when Special Counsel Robert Mueller concludes the president has committed federal crimes, and everyone who holds out hope Republicans will reach their breaking point with Trump should pay close attention.
The fact that conservatives want to save Pruitt can’t itself be explained as an effort to prime themselves to shrug off an adverse report from Mueller. Pruitt has powerful backers. Ideologically speaking, he may as well have been forged in a Koch brothers laboratory. His low moral character explains why Trump has a seemingly genuine affinity for him. Like Trump, Pruitt is paranoid and vindictive. He treats people who get in his way like crap, thinks rules are for other people, and even mimics Trump’s tendency to stiff people who’ve entered agreements with him. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has reportedly advised Trump to let Pruitt go, and Trump has decided, at least for now, to ignore him.
There’s also a practical concern. Republicans in the Senate, who have a bare 51-vote majority, are also almost certainly driven by a desire to avoid a difficult confirmation fight in an election. It is notable that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s former chief of staff has tried to spin conservative support for Pruitt as an act of defiance against the media and the left.
The idea isn’t that conservatives are subliminally testing the limits of their own instrumentalism. It’s that their willingness to reason themselves into treating Pruitt’s contempt for ethics as a kind of symbolic victory over the left offers a hint to the rest of us of what’s coming. After all, this is exactly the kind of reasoning they will have to deploy if Mueller implicates Trump in crimes and they decide to circle the wagons around Trump.
Conservatives would surely like to avoid all of that messiness if they can. Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, is comforting himself in the hope that Trump has committed no crimes whatsoever, and that his only legal jeopardy stems from the possibility that he might agree to an interview with Mueller (during which he would presumably make false statements about the non-crimes he hasn’t committed).
It’s possible that Lowry and others are advising Trump not to talk to Mueller because they genuinely believe they will have to turn on Trump if and when Mueller says Trump committed impeachable offenses, and would like to avoid the confrontation if possible. The right’s defenses of Pruitt suggest they’re prepared to argue that accountability for crimes would be a victory for liberals, and would simply like to avoid embarrassing themselves further.