What is Scott Pruitt’s political endgame?
That’s the subject of a popular parlor game in energy and environmental circles.
President Trump’s U.S. EPA boss isn’t ruling out a future run for office. He’s been in the national spotlight for his prominence in Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate deal, and he spent much of the summer traversing the country in a trip that some view as politically motivated.
He’s also generated headlines for often heading back to his home state of Oklahoma, and he’s hired aides with Oklahoma expertise. He’s been getting face time with industry leaders who could ostensibly become political allies or campaign donors.
"Very few people think he’s going to serve out the four years there [at EPA], let’s put it that way," said one energy industry lobbyist.
That’s having consequences. Outsiders take it into account when thinking about pending EPA litigation and regulatory negotiations as Pruitt and the Trump administration embark on ambitious plans to roll back environmental rules.
"You have to always factor in, ‘How long is Scott Pruitt going to stay there?’" the lobbyist said. "No one knows that answer."
A question that’s central to the Pruitt parlor game: Which office would he seek?
When the former Oklahoma attorney general was first in the running for EPA boss, a popular theory was that he was eyeing the governor’s mansion in the Sooner State. Republican Gov. Mary Fallin will hit her term limit in 2018. Pruitt lost his 2006 bid to become Oklahoma’s lieutenant governor.
But to do that, Pruitt would have needed to resign his EPA job relatively quickly after a contentious confirmation battle. He scoffed at that idea in a July interview with The Oklahoman.
"I mean, who would do that? For folks to think that, it’s just legendary. People, they don’t think through these things," Pruitt said.
A now-popular theory is that he’d like to run for Senate.
He’s unlikely to challenge either of Oklahoma’s sitting GOP senators — stalwart conservative Jim Inhofe and freshman James Lankford — but there’s speculation that the 82-year-old Inhofe might opt not to run in 2020, when he’s up for re-election.
Inhofe told The New York Times earlier this year of Pruitt, "I think he’d make a great senator."
But sources close to Inhofe say it’s highly unlikely that he’d step down if there’s the prospect that he could lead the Senate Armed Services Committee. It’s widely suspected that Inhofe wants a stint as chairman of the panel, a spot that’s held by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Inhofe is now the second-most-senior Republican on that committee.
McCain, who was re-elected last November for a six-year term, has been chairman of the Armed Services panel since 2015, and he can hold that job for a total of six years under Senate GOP term limits.
It’s unclear how McCain’s recent brain cancer diagnosis could affect his career plans. He underwent treatment during the congressional recess and plans to return to Capitol Hill this week. Depending on McCain’s health, Inhofe could get the gavel sooner than he anticipated.
Some speculate that Inhofe might retire sooner if he gets a chance to lead the committee before his next re-election; others anticipate that he’ll have more incentive to stay if he’s in charge of the committee.
Beyond a possible Senate run, another theory emerged about Pruitt as he crisscrossed the country this summer. Could he be eyeing the Oval Office?
Keith Gaby of the Environmental Defense Fund pointed to Pruitt’s summer travel schedule to red states in a recent Huffington Post op-ed titled, "Is Scott Pruitt Running for President?"
Gaby wrote, "It’s hard to believe that a politician who came up the ranks from state senator to elected state attorney general to the president’s cabinet isn’t ambitious enough to dream of the presidency."
The EPA press office didn’t respond to E&E News’ request for comment for this story. And Pruitt has previously declined to speculate about his political future.
Asked by The Oklahoman in July if he was committed to staying in the Trump administration for four years, Pruitt said, "I’ll do it as long as the Lord calls me to and as long as the president wants me to do it."
‘Plenty of career left in Scott Pruitt’
Some of Pruitt’s activities this year — like hitting the cable news circuit to defend the withdrawal from the Paris accord and his frequent travel back to Oklahoma — have fueled speculation about his ambitions.
Pruitt played a lead role in Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, an issue that sharply split the administration. When Pruitt won, he took a victory lap, speaking in the White House Rose Garden alongside Trump and appearing on national television shows to cheerlead the move as Trump faced blowback from critics.
While those types of media appearances aren’t unusual for a Cabinet secretary in the wake of a big policy decision, they fueled already simmering speculation that Pruitt is out to gain recognition among would-be donors and voters.
Then there’s the question of all that travel back to his home state.
Pruitt spent 43 of 92 days this past spring in Oklahoma, according to recently released records. EPA said Pruitt was doing work for the agency and visiting his family, but critics question whether he was preparing for a political race on taxpayers’ dime (E&E News PM, July 24).
Many of Pruitt’s EPA staffers have ties to Oklahoma and to Inhofe’s office — another signal to some that his work at the agency is being done with an eye toward a run in the Sooner State.
His chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, was a longtime Inhofe aide. Jackson is an Oklahoman who’s familiar with the state’s political landscape and is seen as a potential campaign director for Pruitt in a statewide race. Several other former Inhofe aides have also been hired by Pruitt, and ex-Inhofe aide Andrew Wheeler is expected to be nominated as EPA’s deputy administrator.
Some conservatives are worried that Pruitt’s long-term career goals are detracting from his agenda at the agency.
Myron Ebell, who led Trump’s EPA transition team, told a Virginia think tank earlier this year that Pruitt’s "political ambition" could prevent him from doing an adequate job of rolling back regulations, according to a recording obtained by Reuters (Greenwire, May 22).
Others don’t see a conflict between Pruitt’s EPA work and a future political run.
"Scott Pruitt already has ably represented the people of Oklahoma as attorney general and as a state senator," said Scott Segal, an energy industry lobbyist at Bracewell LLP. "If Pruitt should decide to seek statewide office again in Oklahoma, the experience he has gained at EPA would serve him well in addressing the state’s challenges and opportunities."
A conservative close to the administration said, "There’s no doubt that there’s plenty of career left in Scott Pruitt." But that person doesn’t expect Pruitt to leave his post anytime soon.
"I think he’s relishing the role" of reining in the EPA, that person added. "Not liking EPA polls well in a lot of states," and Pruitt could parlay his record there into another political job in Oklahoma or elsewhere.
Can EPA be a launch pad?
The EPA administrator’s office has never before been a launch pad for elected office, or even a place where one makes many allies, given the polarizing nature of big environmental regulations.
William Ruckelshaus, the agency’s first administrator under President Nixon who returned for a second stint under President Reagan, was quoted in The New York Times in 1984 saying, "You get two days in the sun at the EPA … once when you come and once when you leave. Every day in between it rains on you."
But Pruitt could change that calculus.
His work at EPA will help him if he wants to run for office in the Sooner State, said Ronald Keith Gaddie, chairman of the political science department at the University of Oklahoma.
"Being anti-federalist in Oklahoma is never a losing strategy," he said. "Railing against big intrusive national government never hurts."
Pruitt lost his 2006 primary bid to become Oklahoma’s lieutenant governor but went on to be elected attorney general in 2011.
If Oklahoma voters "don’t like much of what EPA does, then it’s probably a very good place" for Pruitt, given the way the Trump administration is approaching regulations, said Christine Todd Whitman, who was EPA administrator during the George W. Bush administration.
"When you consider that the current senator is somebody who has been chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee and frankly never liked EPA, it plays there," Whitman added, referring to Inhofe.
But William Reilly, EPA’s boss during the George H.W. Bush administration, asked in a recent interview, "Will it really play so well for him?"
Reilly questioned Pruitt’s leadership of the agency as well as his political future. Pruitt has "commanded so little respect" and stirred up "so much animosity" that "he has to have an armed guard follow him through the offices and 24-hour security protection," Reilly said, referring to Pruitt’s round-the-clock detail — a first among EPA administrators.
"You have to wonder about the perception of leadership," Reilly said.