- Career employees at the Environmental Protection Agency were devastated when Donald Trump became president.
- Nearly four years later, EPA staff and former officials said Trump has politicized and dismantled the agency beyond recognition. According to them, industry interests now have an “overriding voice” there.
- “I think many of the long-term employees will be able to exhale and get back to business,” a longtime EPA official said of the prospect of a Joe Biden win in November.
- In an exclusive interview, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said he planned to lead the agency “for at least the next two to three years.”
- Environmentalists and ex-EPA staffers are thinking about ways to revive the agency but say it’s going to be a monumental task. “You have to get this agency from a fetal position into Superman,” a union official said.
- Work at EPA and have a story? Contact this reporter at email@example.com.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When Donald Trump clinched the presidency in 2016, employees at the Environmental Protection Agency wept.
They’d watched as Trump pledged on the campaign trail to slash their agency. Staffers feared their jobs would be cut and that eight years of work drafting environmental policies for the Obama administration would be flushed down the drain.
“We had tears when this man won the election,” said Gary Morton, a 26-year EPA veteran who retired last year and now leads a union representing about 7,500 agency employees nationwide. “He ran on a platform of killing the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Three and a half years later, EPA staff and former leaders — who served under both Republican and Democratic presidents — said Trump and his team have dismantled the agency charged with safeguarding the nation’s air, water, and public health even further than they expected.
Beyond the administration trashing former President Barack Obama’s signature environmental policies, Trump’s critics say it has sidelined scientists, sent veteran staffers packing, and blocked meaningful action on climate change.
It has all taken a toll on staff, said an EPA employee who spoke with Insider on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk to the press. Workers inside the agency are looking toward the November presidential election thinking, “Holy s—, we can’t do four more years of this,” the employee said. Staff said they’ve held on by hoping that Trump would serve only a single term.
They said they’ve felt left out of the agency’s inner circle and distrusted by political appointees. For a while, they were even physically blocked from getting anywhere close to the administrator’s office.
Another EPA employee said for the career staff at the agency — those who aren’t political appointees — “unquestionably, people are holding on and looking forward and counting the days.” If Trump is reelected, staffers said, they’re expecting many of their colleagues to leave the agency.
For now, EPA employees are quietly discussing how the agency might be overhauled if presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden ousts Trump in November — a prospect many of them would embrace, according to a dozen interviews with current and former staffers and former EPA administrators who served under presidents from both parties.
If there’s a change in administration, “I think many of the long-term employees will be able to exhale and get back to business,” a longtime EPA official said.
Feds ‘more liberal than President Trump’
Meanwhile, the Trump administration is already crafting its second-term agenda for the agency.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist and GOP Senate aide, told Insider in an exclusive interview he planned to head the agency “for at least the next two to three years.”
Wheeler was elevated to his role in July 2018 after Trump’s first administrator, Scott Pruitt, left the agency mired in ethics controversies. Pruitt came under scrutiny for a spate of allegations that included spending taxpayer cash to travel home to Oklahoma, asking his security staff to help him find lotion at Ritz-Carlton hotels, and attempting to use his role as the EPA boss to help his wife secure a Chick-fil-A franchise.
Morton of the EPA union said before that, he’d “never been embarrassed by an agency head.” But under Pruitt’s leadership, every time he picked up the paper, he would see “behavior that government employees nationwide would be fired for,” he said.
Many EPA staffers welcomed Wheeler’s promotion, at least at first. He had been a career staffer at the agency in the 1990s, and — they hoped — he’d be less of an embarrassment than Pruitt, who had dominated national headlines for months.
“I’ve gotten so much positive feedback from the career employees across the agency, having been a former career employee myself,” Wheeler said in the interview.
“Are there some people here that would be happy with a change in administration position? Probably,” he added. “As a general rule, I think the federal workforce tends to be a little bit more liberal than President Trump.”
Wheeler expects senior EPA staff to leave the agency regardless of who clinches the White House in November. A whopping 40% of the agency’s workforce will be eligible to retire in the next four years, he said.
Agency staffers widely described Wheeler as more respectful toward them than Pruitt was. Wheeler, for example, reopened a hallway outside the administrator’s office in the EPA’s Washington headquarters that had been closed during Pruitt’s tenure.
Its closure was a small thing, but it was a big deal for employees who lost a shortcut through an important floor of a historic building named after former President Bill Clinton. They also said they viewed the move as Pruitt insulating himself from the career staff he disdained.
But insiders said they viewed Wheeler as a more capable Trump lieutenant when it comes to dismantling environmental regulations. And EPA employees said they’ve struggled to fulfill their mission to protect public health and the environment under Trump.
“I don’t really think the place is recognizable,” Nicole Cantello, the president of a union that represents employees in the EPA’s Chicago regional office, said.
“I think that the rank-and-file EPA employees have tried their best to hold the principles of what EPA stands for,” she said. “But it’s been very difficult in the face of the unrelenting attacks and rollbacks that the Trump administration has implemented during these three years.”
‘This is absolute destruction’
Several of the former EPA administrators Insider interviewed for this story said Trump has overhauled the agency more than any other president since it was founded 50 years ago under President Richard Nixon.
“This is absolute destruction; it is not benign neglect. It’s not like, ‘We don’t really care. We’re not going to do anything.’ This is active dismantling of the agency,” Carol Browner, who led the EPA during the Clinton administration and served as Obama’s top White House climate-change adviser, said in an interview. She’s now advising the Biden campaign.
Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor who went on to serve as the first EPA administrator during the George W. Bush administration, told Insider that employees at the agency might not trust Republicans or agree with their approach. “But if they honestly thought that you were working to protect public health and the environment, the basic charge of the EPA, they’d work with you,” she said.
She said she didn’t think Trump has honored that mission. “They’ve politicized it,” she said. “It’s not about policy. It’s about politics. And it is bringing in and giving people who are the ones who are regulated by the EPA … an overriding voice at the table.”
The Trump administration has completed or started rolling back 100 environmental rules across the federal government, according to a New York Times tracker. Many of those are on the EPA’s turf.
Trump this week announced he was rolling back the National Environmental Policy Act — the nation’s bedrock environmental law — winning plaudits from industry but drawing outrage from the left.
The president apparently sees deregulation as a winning issue heading into the election. He held a press conference Thursday on the White House’s South Lawn — with a giant crane and a couple of Chevy trucks as props — touting his regulatory rollbacks and warning about the regulations a Biden administration would impose. “We must never return to the days of soul-crushing regulation that ravaged our cities, devastated our workers, drained our vitality … and thoroughly crippled our nation’s prized competitive edge,” Trump said.
At the EPA, the Trump team has tossed out Obama rules to curb greenhouse gas from power plants, limit pollution in wetlands, and boost fuel-efficiency standards in favor of its own scaled-back standards.
Not even the coronavirus pandemic could slow down the Trump EPA’s deregulatory fervor.
Since March — when the pandemic started to grip the country, and many federal agencies slowed down their work — the EPA has completed its rollback of fuel-efficiency standards for cars, finalized a rule that could make it easier for coal-fired plants to emit mercury and other toxic pollutants, and announced it won’t update national air-pollution standards. Part of the strategy here may just be to avoid seeing his rules meet the same fate as many of Obama’s final regulations before his second term expired. Then Congress upended the Democratic president’s last-minute EPA moves via the Congressional Review Act, a law that allows the repeal of regulations finalized within the last 60 days of an administration.
Wheeler further angered his critics with a decision in April to relax enforcement of clean-air and water-pollution rules during the pandemic, a move seen as ill-timed in the middle of a disease deadlier to those with preexisting pulmonary problems.
William Reilly, who led the EPA under President George H. W. Bush, said Trump has demonstrated how far the executive branch can go to “vitiate” the effectiveness of environmental safeguards without Congress updating its clean-air and clean-water laws.
The amount of risk that the administration has been willing to accept from pollutants like mercury and methane “is beyond anything we have seen in modern EPA history,” Reilly said.
The Trump administration has also been working to limit which scientific studies the agency is allowed to use when writing rules, and to overhaul how the agency weighs the costs of rules against their benefits. Both of those efforts are expected to tip the scales to favor less regulation.
“It’s not just the regulations they’re rolling back, it’s the mechanisms by which EPA does its work,” Browner said. “Those are being destroyed. It’s insidious.”
If the White House changes hands in January, much of Trump’s work at the EPA could be unraveled relatively easily, former agency officials said, following the same process Trump used to ax Obama’s policies.
Drafting new policies will go more smoothly if the EPA’s career staff are on board, Bob Perciasepe, who was the acting chief of the agency early on in Obama’s second term, said.
“If you come in and tell them everything they’ve been doing is wrong” or “that they’re the deep state,” said Perciasepe, who is now president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, “you’re not going to build the trust that you need.”
Cantello of the union said she has been thinking a lot about how “this agency is going to be resurrected” after Trump. She’s not the only one. Environmentalists and ex-EPA staffers have also been chewing on that question.
“How are you going to get it up and running?” Cantello said. “You have to get his agency from a fetal position into Superman. … It’s a monumental task.”