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The Conservative Coddling of Scott Pruitt

By allowing the EPA chief to spread false claims about his frivolous spending, right-wing journalists are failing the taxpayers they purport to protect.

Zach Gibson/Getty

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has found a safe space to talk about his expensive first-class travel habit: conservative talk radio. On Wednesday, The Washington Post pointed out a few interviews the EPA chief has given recently. It turns out, Pruitt has plopped down in front of regional conservative-media hosts to defend himself against accusations that he is wasting taxpayer money on first-class travel and high-priced hotels.

“I’m a little bit dumbfounded by the kind of media narratives,” Pruitt told conservative host Mark Reardon on KMOX in St. Louis last week. Pruitt said the $120,000 he spent to go to Italy last summer was pennies compared with former President Barack Obama’s EPA administrators, whom he claimed spent far more on international travel. “The Obama EPA heads ... they spent $1 million on foreign trips during their time, so 10 times more,” Pruitt said. Satisfied with this response, Reardon moved on with the interview.

Oregon-based conservative host Lars Larson didn’t even need Pruitt’s response to know that Obama was truly to blame. “They’ve been all over you about travel costs,” Larson said in his interview with Pruitt. “And yet, I haven’t seen one of the news organizations—not one of the mainstream, certainly the conservatives have—saying, ‘Well, [Obama’s EPA chiefs] both spent similar amounts or greater amounts of travel than you did, didn’t they?’” Pruitt agreed: The media was not covering the travel costs of Obama’s EPA. “The Obama EPA heads before I arrived spent nearly $1 million on foreign trips,” Pruitt said. “I think our costs last year were a little more than $100,000.”  

That sounds pretty conservative to me,” Larson replied, as though comparing one year of costs to eight years was not wrongheaded on its face. Considering their purported hatred for wasteful spending, one would think conservative radio hosts and publications would push back a bit on Pruitt’s story.

Instead, Pruitt’s narrative has flourished on conservative media. It started last Wednesday, when the Washington Free Beacon said it was provided “internal EPA documents” that showed lavish spending by Obama’s EPA chiefs. A spokesperson for Pruitt’s EPA, Jahan Wilcox, was happy to comment: “The double-standard couldn’t be more clear,” he told the Beacon. The next day, Fox News aggregated the story with no original reporting but with a definitive headline: “Obama’s EPA appointees spent as much, or more, on travel than Trump’s Pruitt, data show.”

And yet, if analyzed for a few minutes, the claim quickly falls apart. Their math is, at best, laughably inadequate. At worst, it’s shockingly dishonest.

Pruitt said that Obama’s EPA heads spent almost ten times as much as he did on international travel—his $120,000 compared with their $1 million. To start, Pruitt’s 2017 international travel costs are actually $160,000. (He declined to include a $40,000 trip to Morocco, perhaps because it’s under investigation for potential impropriety by the EPA inspector general.) Next, the $1 million figure he cites represents 14 trips Obama’s EPA heads took over a period of eight years, compared with two international trips Pruitt took in one year. Correlating $160,000 to $1 million is thus a plainly false comparison.

To make an intellectually honest comparison, you’d have to average the Obama EPA’s $1 million over eight years. Doing so shows that Obama EPA chiefs averaged about $71,000 per international trip. Pruitt is already averaging $80,000 per international trip. Pruitt’s trip to Italy was also more expensive than any individual international trip taken by an Obama-era EPA administrator, with one exception, a $155,764 trip that former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson took to three Chinese provinces: Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai.

In any case, the international travel comparison is actually all a red herring. You see, the backlash over Pruitt’s lavish spending is about unnecessarily expensive first-class domestic airfare, which runs afoul of federal regulations. Federal travel rules allow first- and business-class flights to be expensed to the EPA on long, international trips only. (Notably, Obama EPA chief Gina McCarthy flew coach even on international flights.) On other flights, however, federal regulations dictate government employees be “prudent” about travel and book “the least expensive class of travel that meets their needs.”

These are the regulations Pruitt is accused of violating. As The Washington Post’s reporting has shown, he routinely books $3,000 to $4,000 first-class flights to places like New York, South Carolina, and Alabama for the purposes of doing local media hits and promoting regulatory rollbacks. At least four times, he spent between $2,000 and $2,600 on first-class flights to meetings near his hometown in Oklahoma. He “frequently opts to fly Delta Air Lines, even though the government has contracts with specific airlines on certain routes,” according to the Post, and he often stays at high-end hotels. Over one seven-month period, Pruitt spent an average of $2,261 per week on travel, or $323 per day. The Post’s first story about this was headlined “First-class travel distinguishes Scott Pruitt’s EPA tenure” because, in reality, Pruitt is unlike any other EPA administrator—in the Obama administration or otherwise.

Pruitt and his political staff at the EPA had previously defended these extreme costs by citing unprecedented security needs. When that excuse proved inadequate, they tried to distract with falsehoods. That kind of dishonesty is expected from this administration, but it’s a shame that conservative journalists have allowed it to thrive. Instead of serving as a check against taxpayer waste, people who call themselves reporters are allowing that waste to continue while protecting a member of Trump’s administration. And yet, Pruitt is widely considered immune from Trump’s trigger finger—he doesn’t need conservative media’s protection. He can take a little heat. If only his friends had the courage to bring it.