The Week In Politics: Pruitt Resigns, Supreme Court Shortlist
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
All right. Let's turn the conversation back now to Scott Pruitt and his relatively short but colorful federal career dominated by ethics scandals, including his D.C. condo lease.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SCOTT PRUITT: When you look at the facts of what I leased and what I paid for, it is absolutely, 100 percent ethical. And it was signed off and is legal.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, Scott Pruitt is doing a great job within the walls of the EPA.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TONY CARDENAS: OK. So you were not involved in that.
PRUITT: I was not involved in the approval of the $43,000. And if I had known about it, Congressman, I would have refused it.
KELLY: Scott Pruitt getting the last word there on the matter of the $43,000 secure phone booth installed in his office. We also heard President Trump there defending Pruitt, which he did consistently up till yesterday. Here in the studio to talk about Pruitt's resignation and other political news of the week, we have got David Brooks of The New York Times.
DAVID BROOKS, BYLINE: Good to be here.
KELLY: And Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post, welcome back to you.
JONATHAN CAPEHART: Thank you.
KELLY: So Scott Pruitt - finally out. This follows, of course, months of scandal and speculation. Jonathan, what will his legacy be here in Washington?
CAPEHART: Well, his legacy will be one of scandal. Well, it's twofold. One, primarily it's scandal because some of the things that he's being investigated for range from typical Washington corruption to the bizarre. But also...
KELLY: The $43,000 phone booth might fit in that final category.
CAPEHART: The phone booth, the used Trump hotel mattress, the lotion.
But on the other hand, his legacy will be that of an administrator who came in and went to work immediately rolling back some of the things that President Obama and his administration put into place in the EPA. In that regard, I think that's one of the reasons why he held on for so long is because he was doing the work that President Trump wanted him to do and, specifically, what industry wanted him to do.
KELLY: David, what about all these ethics violations and the investigations into them, which are underway? Should that remain a priority now that Scott Pruitt is out?
BROOKS: I don't think it's a great use of taxpayer money. What strikes me about Pruitt is that he had these delusions of grandeur. He was maneuvering to be secretary of state, even attorney general. At the same time, his corruption was so incredibly petty - you know, a used mattress.
To me, the underlying story for Pruitt is just characterological. It was not the deep state or the liberal media that took him down. It was Trump appointees in the EPA. And the people who were fleeing ship - and have been for the last really six, seven, eight months - were people within the EPA who Trump had appointed. And the atmosphere in there - everyone's been saying it since their very beginning - was like a snake pit. And so why would you want to work with a guy who just creates an atmosphere of viciousness? It's just dysfunctional workplace beyond anything else.
KELLY: Which brings me to this next question, which is - if one were to agree with this characterization of a snake pit at the EPA, the person who will be walking into the job, at least in an acting capacity, comes right from that snake pit. This is Wheeler, who we just heard about in Rebecca Hersher's piece, who brings much of the same agenda but more experience and arguably more political savvy to the job.
David, might Pruitt's environmentalist critics come to regret his departure?
BROOKS: (Laughter) Yeah, you want to be an effective opponent, I guess.
BROOKS: You know, I think what Pruitt never got, which I think will now be reestablished, is there is a difference between public service and private enrichment. And Pruitt never clearly understood that line. But any normal civil servant sort of gets the line and will not be exploding hand grenades in his own stomach every week the way Pruitt was.
KELLY: I have to note for the record that Pruitt denies, always has, continues to deny that any of these ethics allegations are true. He says, as we heard him saying there, that this was not on him and that he never did anything wrong. But let me let you get the last word on this subject, Jonathan.
CAPEHART: I think the one through line will be the policy. The policy stays the same. The administrator is changed, but the direction of the EPA will be unchanged.
KELLY: Let me turn you to next week and the Supreme Court news that we are all waiting on tenterhooks for. The White House says that President Trump is going to announce his choice for the Supreme Court Monday night in primetime. This, of course, is to fill the seat of retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. NPR is reporting that Trump, for now - things may change - but appears to have narrowed it down to three - Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Raymond Kethledge.
David, do you see a big difference between these three choices?
BROOKS: There's gradations of differences. The social conservatives are a little more in favor of Amy Coney Barrett. And the more establishment conservatives, a little more for Kavanaugh - he has a deeper paper trail on some of the regulatory and liberty issues. But these are differences in kinds and not anything like a feud.
To me, when I look at these three, they all seem extremely good. But it's a testimony to the Federalist Society. If you want to change society, build an institution that nurtures whole generations of talent. It doesn't matter who the Republican president is, the Federalist Society nurtures a whole farm team, and any president can pick. And so...
KELLY: We should explain for people who aren't familiar with the Federalist Society.
BROOKS: The Federalist Society is a group of conservative students in law schools around the country started, really, in the early 1980s. And for the last 30 or however many years it's been since then, they've really been an amazing funnel of talent. And so these are very non-Trumpy (ph) picks. They're the establishment and the most well-respected among the Republican judicial types.
KELLY: There's been a lot of talk among Democrats over whether there is any path to thwarting a Trump nominee. Jonathan, do you see it? Is there any way, if Democrats don't like who the president picks, that they can block it?
CAPEHART: Democrats can try mightily, but I am hard-pressed to see how they do it. One, Supreme Court justice nominees - correct me if I'm wrong, David - it's now a simple majority. Two, the Republicans - they usually hang tough and hang tight. They can only lose one Republican vote. But the trouble comes in with Democrats running in red states for reelection, senators. And I'm thinking specifically of Heidi Heitkamp, Donnelly and Senator Joe Manchin, West Virginia - they're all up for re-election. If any one of them decides to vote with the president and for the president's nominee, the Democrats' strategy falls completely apart.
KELLY: David, you concur?
BROOKS: I agree with that. The Republicans who are in play, so to speak, are Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins. They seem to be under a lot less pressure - because neither of them are up for re-election this year - compared to the three Republicans that Jonathan just mentioned
BROOKS: Democrats, yeah.
KELLY: Democrats that Jonathan just mentioned, yeah.
The last thing to ask you both on this subject, which is Roe v. Wade - this is one of the big question marks hanging over the future of the Supreme Court. With any of these three, how real is the threat of overturning Roe versus Wade? Jonathan.
CAPEHART: Well, it would seem that if they're being recommended by the Federalist Society, their views on Roe v. Wade are pretty clear. And for senators like Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins for whom this is a big issue, whether or not the issue comes up during the confirmation hearings, we pretty much know where they stand.
And so the hard part will be for someone like Senator Collins to determine whether she's going to vote for this person whether or not he or she says flat-out that they would do away with Roe v. Wade. We've become accustomed to the fact that they never answer any of these controversial questions to begin with.
KELLY: David, the last word?
BROOKS: Stare decisis, which is the doctrine that what's established should be established. Whatever they secretly believe, that's what they will hold back in the confirmation hearings.
KELLY: David Brooks of The New York Times, Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post - thanks to you both. Happy weekend.
BROOKS: You, too.
CAPEHART: Thank you. You, too.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.