On April 11, a top Environmental Protection Agency official texted me that something strange was happening.
Moments before, the source told me, Administrator Scott Pruitt had strolled into the office “just to say hi.” “It’s been too long since we’ve caught up,” Pruitt told the source. “I just wanted to thank you for always working hard.”
Pruitt then knocked on Ryan Jackson’s door, according to the source. Upon entering, he gave his chief of staff “a huge bear hug.” Recounting the incident to others later, Jackson would say that something like that “had never happened before.”
“This place is weird,” the source summed up that April morning. “Really, really weird.”
For this official and other political appointees who heard about Pruitt’s behavior, it seemed that he was on a goodbye tour of sorts. After all, it had been a fraught week for the administrator. Days before, my colleague Robinson Meyer and I had reported that Pruitt bypassed the White House to give hefty salary bumps to his two closest aides, which The New York Times would later report sparked “irritation” in the West Wing. And it was the same week that Pruitt’s deputy, Andrew Wheeler, was set to be confirmed by the Senate. It was possible, multiple sources speculated at the time, that President Trump was waiting for Pruitt’s successor to be cleared before giving his embattled administrator the boot. “But we don’t want to jinx anything,” one of the officials told me.
I prepared a story about Pruitt’s forthcoming exit.
Yet the week came and went, with Pruitt still atop the agency. And he stayed there for months, until Thursday afternoon when his resignation was announced via Twitter. “I have accepted the resignation of Scott Pruitt as the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency,” the president tweeted. “Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this.”
The timing made sense, in a way, in that it made no sense at all. At various points throughout this tumultuous spring, including that April day, Pruitt’s departure seemed imminent. There were the mounting revelations about his lavish spending habits, for example. There were the congressional hearings in which young aides revealed that Pruitt had tasked them with, say, purchasing a used mattress, among other personal tasks. In past administrations, just one of Pruitt’s many scandals would have been cause for termination. But as the list of offenses snowballed, so did many EPA officials’ certainty that Pruitt’s job was safe. There was, a top official once told me, “no logic” to his prolonged tenure. As recently as early Thursday afternoon, I texted an EPA source to see if the end was nigh, as a recent CNN report had suggested. No way of knowing, the source said: “I’ve been down this road too many times to get my hopes up.”
Such was the reality of life in Scott Pruitt’s EPA. To suggest that Pruitt’s demise was meticulously engineered by reporters, career staffers, or the so-called “deep state”—as some have suggested in the last 12 hours—is to ignore an inconvenient truth: Many members of Pruitt’s inner circle apparently couldn’t stand their boss. These were political appointees who, in private, would parse tea leaves in the hope that Trump had at last grown tired of his EPA chief. These were officials who flooded the Presidential Personnel Office with requests to transfer agencies—requests that, as one White House official told me, were too plentiful by the end of April to accommodate. Perhaps most significantly, these were Trump devotees who believed in Pruitt’s vision of deregulation, but decided his ethical lapses were not a price worth paying.
“The swamp changes people,” said one official who unsuccessfully requested a transfer, back in May. “The mood is absolutely terrible here. [Pruitt] thinks he’s done nothing wrong and is untouchable.”
This account of the final months of the EPA under Pruitt’s leadership is based on interviews with a half-dozen current and former political appointees, as well as senior White House officials, all of whom requested anonymity so as to avoid backlash.
Problems in the agency started well before government-watchdog investigations began in earnest this spring. Though it wouldn’t come to light for over a year, a May 2017 memo used to justify Pruitt’s consistent first-class travel planted seeds of friction among his innermost circle. The memo, authored by Pruitt’s former security chief, Pasqualle Perotta, stated that Pruitt traveling in coach class or other, lesser accommodations would “endanger his life.”
One former top official recalled the tumult that took place after the memo was drafted. “I was like, ‘This is something no one will have your back on, Republican or Democrat,’” the former official recalled telling Pruitt. “It was so clearly pretextual. I said, ‘You can focus on your political future and make a short-term trade-off to be less comfortable, or you can do this boneheaded thing and have everyone think you’re totally out of touch.’”
Officials began to get a glimpse into Pruitt’s “sense of entitlement,” as the source put it. Around the same time, staffers began to notice his ambition, too. One former official remembered Pruitt’s anxiety upon seeing wall-to-wall cable coverage of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly’s joint trip to the U.S.-Mexico border in late April. “He was jealous of other members being on TV,” the former official said, “so he was always pressuring us to book him on more shows.”
“White House bookers were exasperated because they wanted him on the air,” too, the source added. “But he was finicky about the studio from which he would do the interview.”
Still, the sources said, the TV appearances seemed to endear Pruitt to the president, which excited EPA staffers. His advocacy for withdrawal from the Paris climate accord—which pitted him and former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon against Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump—helped endear him to Trump even more. At the time, Pruitt’s jockeying for the spotlight seemed to be positive for everyone involved: EPA officials were proud of the work they were doing, and it was rewarding to have a boss who seemed committed to touting that vision.
Those positive feelings faded in early January, however, when Politico reported that Pruitt was angling to replace Sessions as attorney general. “With rumors swirling that Jeff Sessions could depart the administration … Pruitt is quietly positioning himself as a possible candidate for the job,” Andrew Restuccia reported. “It’s unclear whether Pruitt would be on the shortlist for the position, but people close to the president said Trump has grown to like him.”
Around the same time, one official told me, Pruitt floated to some top staffers that he’d be a “great secretary of state” should Rex Tillerson be fired. With speculation rampant that Sessions and Tillerson alike were on thin ice, the source said, Pruitt was all too happy to envision himself as one of their successors. The source added that Pruitt’s penchant for foreign travel began to take root: “He was really interested in building up the foreign-affairs part of his resume should something like Tillerson leaving end up happening.”
According to one former official, this was when office morale really began to crater. “People had come to support the mission,” the source said, “and it’s very demoralizing to think your leader has checked out.”
Then the leaks began.
To top staffers, the initial ABC News report on Pruitt’s living arrangements wasn’t all that troubling at first. In late March, the outlet, citing property records, revealed that Pruitt had lived much of his first year in Washington in a Capitol Hill townhouse owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist. While it may have been evidence of “grift,” as one official put it at the time, it didn’t directly concern any staffers themselves. Even when Bloomberg reported shortly thereafter that Pruitt had paid a mere $50 a night to live in the condo, top officials were largely unbothered and felt the scrutiny would soon die down.
Less than a week later, however, an official tipped me off that major pay raises were in the works for two young aides Pruitt had brought with him from Oklahoma. This, even after the White House had denied the request for increases. After the report dropped, the official would later tell me, “there was a lot of anger. I think it’s the first scandal where we actually now feel like we have skin in the game.”
Pruitt, much like his own boss, became hypersensitive about leaks. He reserved an air of secrecy around “all things,” the official said, “things that made no sense.” Each current or former staffer I spoke to for this story said the daily “team meetings” stopped with no explanation. “He began shutting people out,” another former official said.
This included Jackson, his chief of staff. Once Pruitt “iced out Ryan,” one of the officials told me in late April, “he literally had zero friends between here and the White House. ...Trump is the single person left on Earth that doesn’t want Pruitt fired.”
Several current and former officials said that a feeling of “numbness” took hold in the months that followed. Scandals seemed to break by the day, and the number of ongoing investigations had risen to the point of unreality—to date, Pruitt faces 16. One inquiry found that he broke the law in purchasing a $43,000 soundproof booth for his office without informing Congress. He is also being investigated for instructing aides to complete personal tasks, including house-hunting and securing a job for his wife with a minimum $200,000 salary.
“You’d just wake up every day holding your breath, wondering what would drop next,” one of the former officials recalled. “I felt like I could never get through to him. Even as one of his top advisers, I would tell him, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’ It didn’t matter—he would not heed counsel. At a certain point, you reach your limits as a staffer with what you feel you can accomplish.”
Some officials relied on humor to ease tension and speed along the workdays. On May 1, Axios’s Jonathan Swan reported that a “suspicious package” had been found on the second floor of EPA’s headquarters. “The floor has been locked down and a Hazmat team is on its way,” he wrote.
I texted an official with a link to the tweet and got an immediate response. “The inter-office joke was that we finally found Pruitt’s ethics training manual,” the source said. (The suspicious package was later revealed to be a box of fruit.)
A sense of malaise seemed to grip the EPA in the weeks leading up to Pruitt’s resignation. One former official told me they’d struggled emotionally with how to navigate an unrelenting “sense of purposelessness.” For officials who weren’t immediately able to transfer to another agency, this was especially trying. “People always say to me, ‘Oh, why don’t you just leave?’” one official recalled to me. “And it’s like, one, I’m trying. And two, I have a family to take care of. I can’t just quit my job.”
This struggle may help explain one exchange I had with an EPA staffer recently. After confirming for a story that a top EPA aide had resigned her post, I texted the agency’s press secretary, Jahan Wilcox, asking to speak. A few minutes later, he called, but quickly cut off my questioning. “You have a great day,” he told me. “You’re a piece of trash.” He hung up.
A few hours later, after I’d reported on the exchange, Wilcox called back and left a voicemail. “I just wanted to call and just apologize,” he said. “Sorry the frustrations got the best of me.”
Perhaps they got the best of Pruitt, too. But the full story of Pruitt’s resignation—whether there was a final straw—is one that’s likely to remain unknown. That’s because, by the end of his tenure, the fate of Pruitt’s job was something known only to Pruitt himself, and to President Trump. Even some of those closest to him, including his senior counsel Sarah Greenwalt, had bid the agency adieu.
I pulled up my first draft of the Pruitt resignation story recently. While it was from April, much of the copy would have worked just as well on Thursday. “The announcement comes after weeks of turmoil in the agency,” I’d written. “White House and EPA staffers alike have expressed frustration with the constant crush of scandals.”
All of which was still true when Pruitt closed one of the more spectacular chapters of the Trump administration. Only this time, upon his departure, there were no hugs involved.