Given that a cache of documents that might show whether Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump’s choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency, ought to get the job is due to be released next Tuesday, why did Senate Republicans insist, over Democratic protests, on holding a confirmation voteon Friday? Since there was only a holiday weekend in between, not much time would have been lost. And the documents, including e-mails on the contacts that Pruitt had with oil and gas companies in Oklahoma during a period in which, as that state’s attorney general, he repeatedly sued the E.P.A. and sought to block policies designed to address climate change, are directly relevant. (As Elizabeth Kolbert has written, the existing paper trail is already pretty damning.) This wasn’t some fishing expedition into an obscure or long-closed chapter of Pruitt’s life. Nor was it a last-minute one: a judge in Oklahoma ordered that the state produce the papers in response to a long-stalled freedom-of-information request from a citizens’ group, first filed in 2015, before anyone thought that Trump might win the election. Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, who introduced the measure that would have delayed the vote, called the unwillingness to examine the e-mails “an egregious cover-up,” and it might well have been just that. The e-mails could show a conflict between Pruitt’s private ties to an industry whose activities he would help regulate and his duty to the public.
But the Republicans, it turned out, weren’t interested in any of that. After a session in which they mostly complained that the Democrats didn’t seem to like anyone whom President Trump had come up with, they pushed the vote through, and Pruitt was confirmed, fifty-two to forty-six. Only one Republican, Susan Collins, of Maine, voted against him. (Two Democrats—Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, and Heidi Heitkamp, of North Dakota—voted yes, presumably for reasons related to their states’ fossil-fuel industries and the tough reëlection campaigns that they face next year. John McCain missed the vote because he was travelling.) No one else in the Republican Party seemed to question the wisdom of putting a man who has openly doubted the reality of climate change in charge of the agency most associated with efforts to combat it. Why not?
There are two answers to the question of why Republicans rushed Pruitt through, not mutually exclusive. One is that this is just another instance of something that has been seen repeatedly in the weeks since Donald Trump took office: the Republicans’ floppy pose of deference to Trump. They have let him do what he wants, for the most part, unless a shocking “Oprah” tape from the past comes back to haunt an already unfit nominee. (As William Finnegan has written, in that case, involving Andrew Puzder, the failed Labor Secretary nominee, the tape only stopped the senators when combined with his illegal household help and his crudely expressed disdain for working Americans.) They hadn’t stood up to Trump on his executive order barring entry to people from seven countries and to all refugees, despite the direct risk it posed to many residents of red states, not to mention to the Constitution. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan hadn’t managed to say much more than that “regrettably, the rollout was confusing,” as if he might have erased the insult to American values with a PowerPoint presentation and a can-do smile. Their hurt speeches, on Friday morning, about how the Democrats didn’t respect Trump’s choices, came less than twenty-four hours after their President spoke casually about blowing Russian boats out of the water; accused his opponents of staging fake anti-Semitic attacks; questioned the legitimacy of the electoral system, the courts, and the media; and asked a black journalist, April Ryan, if the legislators in the Congressional Black Caucus were “friends” of hers, and if she could maybe set them up with a meeting with him.
This is a weak answer, in part because of what is at stake: not only America’s air and water and its children’s health but the future of the planet. Pruitt is so shameless a choice that former E.P.A. employees who have served under Presidents from both parties sent a letter to the Senate expressing concern about his appointment, noting his demonstrated lack of interest in enforcing environmental laws, his stance on climate change, and his failure to demonstrate that he would “put the public’s welfare ahead of private interests.”
Then again, why would this Republican Party want to block Pruitt? This is the other answer: the senators pushed him through because they wanted to, for their own non-Trump reasons. He is, in many ways, more typical of where many congressional Republicans stand than Trump is, though Pruitt might express his views more crudely and with fewer circumlocutions than some. His ties to industry are, in many cases, their ties to industry, too. (Jane Mayer has covered the influence of the Koch brothers, for example, in this regard.) When Ryan talks about dismantling the regulatory state, he is not far from Pruitt. Indeed, when asked about the influence of human activity on climate change, Ryan has said that he just didn’t know what it all added up to, “and I don’t think science does, either.” In a statement that Ryan issued in December, 2009, he accused certain scientists who did recognize the effect of using “statistical tricks to distort their findings and intentionally mislead the public on the issue of climate change.” He added that any rules restricting American industry in the name of fighting climate change would be a “tough sell” in Wisconsin, “where much of the state is buried under snow.” Similarly, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, tends to deal with climate change by saying that he is not a scientist. In the opportunistic calculations of the congressional Republicans, Pruitt may not even count as a price they have to pay, or a Trumpian burden to bear. To the contrary: he is their reward.