We can only speculate what Scott Pruitt thinks about when he eats lunch. But he looked relaxed at his table at Teaism on Monday afternoon – exactly 500 days into his directorship of the Environmental Protection Agency; five days after the agency’s top ethics official recommended widening an investigation into accusations that he misused his power; about five hours before the Washington Post reported that Pruitt once asked a subordinate to help find his wife a job, and less than five minutes before Kristin Mink wiped a smile off his face.
A few tables from the EPA administrator, Mink was wrangling her 2-year-old into his seat while she waited for her pancake to arrive from the kitchen.
The 33-year-old teacher was spending the day showing out-of-town relatives around the muggy heart of Washington and she might not have even noticed the EPA administrator had her husband not pointed him out.
“He said, ‘Scott Pruitt’s having lunch here right now,’ ” Mink recalled. “I’m really bad at recognizing faces, but he said he was 100 percent sure.”
Mink looked across the diner and, yeah, there he was: the climate change skeptic-turned-environmental chief, with an elbow on the table and an empty taco shell holder on his tray. He was chatting amiably with a man in a suit across the table.
“I instantly knew I had to say something,” Mink said. “It was just a matter of figuring out what.”
While her day job is teaching sixth grade at Sidwell Friends (where President Barack Obama sent his daughters), Mink has lately spent much of her free time protesting President Donald Trump’s administration. She organized a fundraiser to replace a church banner defaced with a pro-Trump, white supremacist message last year. Just last week, she went to a rally in front of the Department of Justice to protest the detention of migrant children.
But Mink had never been so close to one of Trump’s top deputies before. So she began scribbling bullet points on the back of her pancake receipt, occasionally consulting her phone to refresh herself about Pruitt’s past 500 days.
The circumstances were not ideal for speech drafting. Mink’s 2-year-old was still protesting his seating, and two of the out-of-towners at her table were cautioning her against making a scene.
“They kept saying things about ‘civility,’ ” she said. Mink was aware of the public debate: recent tableside protests against other Trump officials caught dining; the owner of the Red Hen asking Trump’s press secretary to leave; a Democratic congresswoman calling for the harassment of Cabinet members. She had read The Washington Post’s editorial on the matter – “Let the Trump team eat in peace.”
She understood the argument for civility over confrontation, and rejected the premise.
“I think that talking to people is civil,” Mink said. “I think other protests are a part of civil discourse. They should want to hear from us and hear how we feel… . Don’t go out in public if you don’t want to talk to people.”
Mink didn’t put it as clearly as that in the moment, as she sat at her family table of seven, rushing to write down what she wanted to say to the EPA administrator before he walked out of Teaism and her small, brief sphere of influence.
In the end, she just made up her mind she would do it.
“The message is as much for others as for him,” her husband told her, she said. “This should definitely be recorded.”
So he took out his phone, and she stuffed a pacifier into her back pocket and scooped up their still-restless 2-year-old, thinking she’d found a way to kill two birds with one stone.
“My son was saying he wanted to go outside,” Mink said. “I said, ‘Okay. Let’s go outside. We’ll stop by this table that happens to be on the way.’ ”
Pruitt’s dining companion had a hand on his tray when Mink walked up to the table, cradling her boy between her shoulder and speech notes.
The administrator looked up at her and smiled, at first. “Maybe he thought I was a superfan or something,” Mink recalled.
“Hi,” she told Pruitt. “I just wanted to urge you to resign for what you’re doing to the environment in our country.”
Pruitt’s smile drooped.
“This is my son,” Mink continued. “He loves animals. He loves clean air. He loves clean water. Meanwhile … ” She briefly consulted her receipt. “ … you’re slashing strong fuel standards for cars and trucks for the benefit of big corporations. You’ve been paying 50 bucks a night to stay in a D.C. condo that’s connected to an energy lobbying firm, while approving their dirty-sands pipeline.”
Pruitt had by now taken his elbow off the table. He covered one hand with the other, his ring finger twitching on the table beside an empty bowl.
“Um, we deserve to have somebody at the EPA who actually does protect our environment,” Mink continued. “Somebody who believes in climate change and takes it seriously for the benefit of all of us, including our children. So, I would urge you to resign before your scandals push you out.”
End of speech.
Pruitt made another half-smile, not really a happy one this time, before the video cut off.
“I wish he’d kept filming,” Mink said. But her husband had noticed two men watching them from an adjacent table, both with ear pieces, neither eating. One of the Pruitt controversies that Mink did not mention is the millions of dollars the public has spent on his personal security detail.
“The two security guards were behind my husband,” Mink said. “And I think he was hustling to get us out of there.”
Her husband had been right that this was the real Pruitt, by the way. EPA officials confirmed that the confrontation took place, though the agency disputed Mink’s account of what happened after her husband turned his camera off.
“Administrator Pruitt always welcomes input from Americans, whether they agree or disagree with the decisions being made at EPA,” spokesman Lincoln Ferguson wrote in a statement. “This is evident by him listening to her comments and going on to thank her, which is not shown in the video.”
Mink, however, said Pruitt did not speak a word during or after her speech.
In fact, she said, she never saw him again after she turned from his table.
She reneged on her promise to take her son outside, and instead walked back to her own table. “I felt like I had to sit down,” she said. By the time she got the toddler seated and looked up, she said, Pruitt’s table and the guard’s beside it were both empty, and the four men were nowhere in sight.
“He had simply finished his meal and needed to get back to EPA for a briefing,” the agency spokesman wrote. “His leaving had nothing to do with the confrontation.”
Mink doesn’t believe that. She called Pruitt a coward and wrote that he “fled the restaurant” when she posted the video to Facebook that afternoon – and that’s how she tells the story in the nonstop news interviews she has given since the video went viral.
The whole interaction – from sighting to speech draft to “resign” – had taken just a few minutes. By late Monday afternoon, Pruitt would be back in the news with yet more accusations of ethical scandals.
Mink eventually ate her pancake, then took her family to see the White House.
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