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Thursday, October 29, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Erik Wemple: Farewell to the amazing Scott Pruitt stories

By Erik Wemple Washington Post

In the annals of screwball commentary about media conspiracies, the Washington Examiner’s chief congressional correspondent Susan Ferrechio distinguished herself. She was speaking with host Howard Kurtz on the Fox News program “Media Buzz” on just how former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt found himself without a job. “It was instigated by a desire to take him down because of something that he was doing. He was trying to take apart the Obama-era EPA regulations and he accomplished a lot of that,” said Ferrechio, who didn’t contest the solidity of the investigative reporting on Pruitt. “And I think that fueled the investigatory desires of journalists to try to take him down and outside groups to try to – and people within the EPA to try to take him out for that very reason. He made himself a very easy target. But he would not have been the same level of target if he had a different job within the administration.”

Consider what’s being alleged here: that the U.S. news media, which is regarded by President Trump and his allies in the government as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people,” maintains enough credibility within the administration that it can decide on an agenda and jam it through an unwilling and resistant White House. Never has the power of the Fourth Estate been so exalted.

Just as she can read the media’s true intentions, Ferrechio also knows about some dark and mysterious stories that have never been told. “Maybe we are only seeing how swampy he is because so many people are interested in taking him out,” she told Kurtz. “That has a lot to do with who gets investigated. You can’t tell me that there weren’t people who are pretty swampy in the Obama administration that we never heard about because nobody cared.” It’s never too late to tell those untold stories.

Mollie Hemingway of the Federalist managed to blast the media for exaggeration last week, upon the news that Pruitt had resigned: “There’s no question that Scott Pruitt showed some bad judgment. But many of these things – you see the scrolling list of items, a lot of them are overblown,” said Hemingway, pointing to a correction in a New York Times story about Pruitt deploying staffers to do his personal bidding. And Kimberley Strassel, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal editorial page, tweeted similar reflections:

“Lesson to other Trump officials from Pruitt resignation: Give the left/media/organized greens any molehill and they will turn it into K2. Most of the accusations were overwrought, but the barrage was overwhelming. Let’s hope an equally reformist successor denies them a repeat.”

Again: If ever there was a group of politicians who would spit at puffed-up news reporting on the misdeeds of an anti-regulation EPA boss, it’s the ones currently occupying the White House and running committees on Capitol Hill. Alas, those officials could not do such a thing. The reporting – from the likes of the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Associated Press, E&E News, CNN and other networks – was just too strong, too well sourced, too well supported by documents. Kurtz provided an appropriate, if abbreviated, rundown on his program: “I mean, asking officials at agency to get his wife a $200,000 job at Chick-fil-A and others, $50 a night room owned by a lobbyists, $43,000 soundproof phone booth, aides driving with sirens and lights to get his favorite lotion, altering calendars. I don’t have time for everything else.”

“Everything else” includes making aides put up money for his hotel expenses with their own credit cards, not to mention the “tactical pants.”

So overwhelming were the reports that even the president found himself muted when addressing the predicament of his appointee. “Scott Pruitt is doing a great job within the walls of the EPA. I mean, we’re setting records. Outside he’s being attacked very viciously by the press. And I’m not saying that he’s blameless, but we’ll see what happens,” Trump said on June 8. And after reports of Pruitt’s use of his position to help secure a Chick-fil-A franchise for his wife, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “Certainly, we have some areas of concern about these allegations, but I don’t have any personnel announcements at this point.”

Concern about these allegations? That is as close to a gold-plated endorsement of the news media that you’ll ever hear from a White House official.

Just as the administration knew that the reporting was fair and solid, so did Capitol Hill. “The ethical lapses associated with Scott Pruitt are troublesome,” said Republican Sen. Bill Cassiday of Louisiana. As revelations mounted, so did criticism from other GOP lawmakers.

It all goes to show you that even when Trump himself isn’t crying “fake news” – and even when his allies on Capitol Hill are wrestling with the disclosures – there will always be some commentators in prominent places willing to blame the media. There’s a market, in other words, for out-Trumping Trump.

What these few voices are ignoring is that Scott Pruitt at the EPA was a once-in-a-century story. Here we had a man who attempted to hijack the levers of the federal government into a concierge service for the enjoyment of his family, all while serving under a president dedicated to “draining the swamp.” When news organizations sought to report on the details, they faced attacks from Pruitt’s nasty press shop, a factor that only enhanced the entire corrupt package.

Scoundrels this plump don’t come around every decade. Fox News’s Laura Ingraham got it right when she said last week, “Pruitt is the swamp. Drain it.” Now, was she part of the conspiracy, too?

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