Trump’s appointments reveal the frightening far-reaching power of a corrupt president.
By Gregg Barak
Grasping the enormity, the breadth, and the depth of “Trump corruption” is rather astonishing. Most news junkies and politicos alike are quite familiar with the in-your-face looting, skimming, and self-dealing of the president and his family members. Beyond the family corruption, there is a much larger world of Trump corruption. A “sliminess perpetrated by literally thousands of presidential appointees from Cabinet officials to obscure functionaries,” as reporter Jim Lardner put it in his article for the American Prospect. It is certainly difficult to tabulate all the knaves, thieves, and corporate stooges as well as the nefarious schemes perpetrated.
The corruption infected many of the government bodies designed to protect the health and well-being of all Americans, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in ways that we haven’t fully reckoned with.
Former President Donald Trump’s first Environmental Protection Agency administrator was one of his most controversial appointments to a cabinet-level position. This appointment, in particular, embodied the White House’s broad support for the fossil fuel industry and disdain for climate science. Prior to his appointment, Scott Pruitt had made a career—as Oklahoma’s attorney general—of attacking the very federal agency that he would someday run. As an outspoken skeptic of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions, Pruitt, along with other Republican attorney generals, led the charge and, as Rebecca Hersher and Brett Neely reported for NPR in 2018, “sued the EPA to stop ozone and methane emissions rules and block regulations on coal-fired power plants.” Of course, it was not Pruitt’s anti-environmental policies that brought about his abrupt departure after 18 months in office: That was why he was hired in the first place.
Pruitt was fired (“resigned”) because of his garden-variety corruption and lavish spending on his expenses, office, and travel. He also had the habit of mixing his personal and his professional lives, which led to more than a dozen investigations by the Office of the Inspector General. For example, Pruitt spent more than $124,000 on unjustified first-class air travel and $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth. He used EPA staff to land a job for his wife, rented a condominium apartment on Capitol Hill at a bargain rate from a lobbyist’s wife, and had his security detail drive him around on personal errands. As the investigations piled up several of his close aides and EPA staffers exited the shop. After all the negative publicity, pressure mounted on Trump from the Congressional Republicans to oust Pruitt.
On Twitter, Trump announced on July 8, 2018, that he was accepting Pruitt’s resignation, noting: “Within the Agency Scott had done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this.” Some of Pruitt’s “outstanding” work included his response to an initial study requested by his aides from EPA economists to reevaluate the effects of the Obama administration’s clean water rule. According to a 30-year veteran of the agency who left around the same time, when the study found more than a half-billion dollars in economic benefits, these economists “were ordered to say the benefits could not be quantified,” reported the American Prospect via their Mapping Corruption project, an extensively researched interactive dossier exposing the breadth of corruption in the Trump administration. Similarly, after “a scientific advisory board questioned the basis for a proposed rewrite of the Obama administration rules on waterways and vehicle tailpipe emissions, more than a quarter of the panel members were dismissed or resigned, many of them being replaced by scientists with industry ties.”
Under Pruitt’s EPA, more generally, the agency moved to limit the use of scientific research. They excluded numerous studies that relied on confidential personal health data. Meanwhile, vacancies were left unfilled, especially in the areas of air pollution and toxic research. The Trump EPA did not miss a beat with its anti-environmental and anti-species agenda when Andrew Wheeler became the next administrator. For example, as a former coal lobbyist whose top client was Murray Energy and whose CEO was a major backer of Trump and a climate change denier, Wheeler ordered the EPA in June 2019 to terminate its funding to 13 health centers around the country that were studying the effects of pollution on the growth and development of children and other living things. As Trump wrote on Twitter announcing Wheeler as Pruitt’s replacement: “I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda. We have made tremendous progress and the future of the EPA is very bright!”
While Wheeler was at the helm of the EPA, Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray prepared a policy “wish list” that was hand-delivered to Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Several of Murray’s recommendations were acted on, including, as reported by American Prospect, “abandoning an Obama administration rule barring coal companies from dumping waste into streams and waterways; making it easier to open new coal plants, and allowing higher levels of mercury pollution.” In related matters, former industry lobbyist Nancy Beck, the deputy assistant administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, was leading the charge against an EPA proposal to halt the sale of three chemicals linked to birth defects, nerve damage and deaths. Under Wheeler, the EPA was completely absolved of any duty to address global warming.
Besides the EPA’s capture by mega-polluters, conflicts of interests, and Trump’s top appointments, the American Prospect’s Mapping Corruption project has underscored the undue influence of a dozen deputy and assistant administrators dispersed throughout the environmental protection organization. Below are the first five administrators identified by the project:
- “David Dunlap, deputy assistant administrator for research and development, is a former policy director for Koch Industries. At EPA, Dunlap has had a role in regulating formaldehyde despite the fact that one of the country’s largest producers of formaldehyde, Georgia-Pacific Chemicals, is a Koch subsidiary.”
- “David Fischer, deputy assistant administrator for Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, is a former industry lawyer and senior director of the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical companies.”
- “Alexandra Dunn, assistant administrator for chemical safety and pollution prevention, was also employed by the American Chemistry Council.”
- “As an industry lawyer, Susan Bodine, now assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, had defended polluting companies against Superfund cleanup responsibilities.”
- “Peter Wright, assistant administrator for land and emergency management, oversees toxic waste site cleanup. He used to work for DowDuPont, which has been implicated in problems affecting roughly one-seventh of all toxic waste cleanup sites.”
Corruption and white-collar crime reached new heights during Trump’s four years as president. Similarly, Trump introduced a level of corruption never seen before in the highest echelons of the U.S. government. It is difficult to assess the full measure of the negative impact of Trump’s EPA on our collective health and well-being, as well as the costs, time, and energy that it will take to undo the damages caused by the science denier-in-chief. And now with the Supreme Court ruling against the Environmental Protection Agency on June 30—a 6-3 vote, with all three of Trump’s appointees voting with the conservative bloc—it is questionable that the Trumpian damage to the environment can be repaired.
Gregg Barak is a criminologist and author. He is a fellow of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University. His books include Unchecked Corporate Power (Routledge, 2017), Chronicles of a Radical Criminologist (Rutgers University Press, 2020), and Criminology on Trump (Routledge, 2022). In 2020, Barak received the Gilbert Geis Lifetime Achievement Award from the Division of White-Collar and Corporate Crime of the American Society of Criminology.