It’s been a rough stretch for the Trump administration.
Ronny Jackson, whom President Donald Trump picked to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs after David Shulkin’s suspicious exit, withdrew his nomination amid several disturbing allegations. And EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, already facing 10 federal investigations, was grilled by a House panel before the EPA’s internal watchdog opened yet another probe.
The pair of allegations fit into a broader narrative we’re certainly used to hearing by now: Trump’s questionable picks to lead important federal agencies continue to prove themselves less and less capable of performing their jobs adequately.
Pruitt’s Squandering of Taxpayer Money
Pruitt appeared before the House committee on Thursday for back-to-back hearings about his rogue spending.
In his first year as EPA chief, Pruitt racked up more than $100,000 in unnecessary first-class airfare, millions in unnecessary security measures (including a $43,000 soundproof booth), and huge pay raises to friends on his staff. The final straw came last month, when ABC News reported that Pruitt had rented a condo for $50 a night from a major energy lobbyist.
Pruitt has addressed these allegations only in passing in an opening statement for the hearings (“Facts are facts, fiction is fiction.”) and had just as little to say under questioning. Asked about his flights, Pruitt said, “I’m not involved in any of those decisions.” He also claimed to know nothing about the pay raises and to have never asked for the soundproof booth.
The response was predictable, for the most part: Democrats called him unfit for the job, Republicans rushed to his defense, and Trump stood by Pruitt as doggedly as ever. But a growing number of Republicans – even those who support Pruitt’s overall agenda for deregulation – are calling to investigate him. Behind closed doors, White House officials say his job is in serious jeopardy.
Jackson Retreats, His (and VA’s) Reputation in Tatters
That same Thursday, and only weeks into his nomination to lead the VA, Ronny Jackson “regretfully” dropped out.
The withdrawal came after criticism for lack of experience, verbally abusive leadership, loose prescribing of opioids, and being intoxicated on the job. Sen. Jon Tester, the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate committee, claimed Jackson crashed a government vehicle while drinking.
Jackson denied everything, but said, “baseless and anonymous attacks on [his] character and integrity” had become “a distraction for this President and the important issue we must be addressing – how we give the best care to our nation’s heroes.”
The White House agrees that Tester’s accusation, among others, is baseless. In a Twitter rant, Trump called for him to resign. David Shulkin received the same bout of Twitter shaming, let go immediately without a contingency plan. Still dealing with that fallout, the VA awaits its fourth secretary in 4 years.
The Common Denominator? No Protection from Deadly Public Health Risks
After throwing his aides under the bus, Scott Pruitt came back to an enraged EPA staff. According to a former EPA official, even political aides are “sick of Pruitt constantly putting himself first.”
“He’s rarely been interested in selling regulatory reform as improving Americans’ lives, and is far more interested in saving his political career,” the former official said.
Meanwhile, with the VA in limbo, debates around how to improve the department have stalled once again. And though veterans advocacy groups hope to have a say in the president’s next pick, they have thus far been ignored.
What’s interesting about this story is the underlying pattern. These 2 federal departments had just begun the process of rebuilding themselves under President Obama – and now that progress is stalled indefinitely. And at the heart of both agencies? An unaddressed public health concern that both Trump and Pruitt have always dismissed: asbestos.
The VA, long under fire for delaying benefit applications from veterans with deadly asbestos-related diseases, cut the backlog substantially in recent years. The EPA, responsible for enforcing outdated regulation of dangerous substances like asbestos, finally updated the Toxic Substances Control Act in 2016, when President Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Act into law. But under Trump, famed for dismantling several key Obama-era efforts, both the VA and EPA look unfit to manage the prevalence of asbestos in the U.S. or its disproportionate effect on U.S. veterans from all branches of the military.
Both departments hold the keys to reducing the damage that asbestos wages on the American public – the VA by offering victims best treatment possible, and the EPA by banning asbestos to prevent future exposure. Alleged internal corruptions take attention away from what Trump’s cabinet should be doing. With their reputations on the line, the future is unclear for all of us.