President Donald Trump, center, standing with from left, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Vice President Mike Pence, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
( Susan Walsh
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And Bob Garfield. It may seem that for two years the entire Washington press corps has been devoted 24/7 to the Mueller investigation and the daily stream of Trump-ruptions from the White House. Most recently the decision to withdraw US troops from Syria and the immediate resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis. But the press does cover other things including, as a matter of fact, that extremely fast moving presidential cabinet departure beat. Not to be distracted by nuclear brinkmanship or border walls, some hardworking D.C. reporters have attended the actual business of governance–including the funny business of governance. Former Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price, was hounded out of town for ethical transgressions. EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, was hounded out of town for ethical transgressions. And this week, the exposed transgressor was secretary of the interior Ryan Zinke. All departures courtesy of Journalism. In a recent newsletter of the Columbia Journalism Review, reporter Jon Allsop documented how the press got the goods. Jon welcome to OTM.
JON ALLSOP: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: The first to go, back in September of 2017 was Tom Price who resigned to spend more time with his lawyers.
JON ALLSOP: Yeah. Politico got the story that Tom Price was using I think private and even military planes all on the taxpayer's dime.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: For a secretary to rack up more than a million dollars in travel spending over just four months, and for that Secretary to be someone who has criticized the federal government for waste it has created a maelstrom. [END CLIP]
JON ALLSOP: And they went to extraordinary lengths, the reporters from Politico, to reconstruct prices, flying habits in the absence of him providing an official schedule for that. So I think they ended up going and actually staking out airports to see him on the tarmac. It's all pretty inventive stuff. They got that story. And pretty soon afterwards Price stepped aside.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: When you come roaring into town like Oliver Cromwell looking for witches to burn and condemning the establishment you have to expect some blowback. Tom Price was supposed to repeal Obamacare, instead, he got repealed.
JON ALLSOP: I think in this administration the interest has been heightened because Trump you know came in on this promise to drain--.
PRES. DONALD TRUMP: The swamp of Washington. We're going to have fun doing it. We're all doing it together.
JON ALLSOP: Because, you know, every time he said that journalists on those kind of beats covering federal departments agencies saw it as a challenge.
BOB GARFIELD: Then came the second to go EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, in July of this year. It's almost comical the number of ethics investigations that are still going on about this guy and how petty were the favors and gratuities he apparently accepted. Can you give me the quick rundown?
JON ALLSOP: Well, if I get you a quick rundown, I think we'd be here til 2019 but some of the more inventive shall we say uses of government time and money that Scott Pruitt's allegedly engaged in were--
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Pruitt got a sweetheart deal to live in this Capitol Hill condo with his adult daughter for the low, low price of 50 bucks a night. And, crucially, he only had to pay that when he actually slept there. So who went to give him such a ridiculous deal. Well the condo just happens to be co-owned by the wife of a top energy lobbyist someone very interested in the goings-on at Pruitt's EPA. [END CLIP]
JON ALLSOP: One point he asked aides to get him a used mattress from a Trump hotel.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Pruitt allegedly used his capacity as a cabinet level official of the US government to get his wife a Chick-fil-A fast food franchise. [END CLIP]
JON ALLSOP: Those were just kind of ones that I think particularly attention grabbing.
BOB GARFIELD: OK. And then finally this month the hat trick came with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke who will be leaving the administration after the first of the year. What did he do?
JON ALLSOP: It was kind of an interesting resignation, I think compared to the resignations of Price and Pruitt. Because Price's resignation came pretty soon after Politico detailed his irregular travelling behavior. Pruitt it was because, as you said, it kind of chalked up this long list of scandals that just kept going and going. Zinke has been comparatively out of the headlines for a while but there have been a number of investigations opened into his conduct, at least half a dozen opened by the inspector general inside of the Interior Department. Particularly, there was a report in Politico which said a lot of this in motion earlier this year which was to do with the real estate deal--.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: A real estate deal that involved a foundation set up by Mr Zinke and a development group backed by the chairman of Halliburton, the company that does a lot of business with the US government. [END CLIP]
JON ALLSOP: It seemed like, you know, a pretty clear example of a conflict of interest. Now it's not like he stepped aside immediately after that report came out. But what it did was it set in chain a complaint made by Democratic lawmakers, an investigation opened within his department. I believe part of that at least has been transferred over to the Justice Department now. There are reports that the White House was getting fed up with this ratcheting up of various different scandals and ethical probes. And according to Bloomberg and others who reported on the stories, Zinke also kind of decided to get out of town before the Democrats took charge of the House in January because they were really trying to hold his feet to the fire over some of this stuff.
BOB GARFIELD: There's an argument that says, and I've seen a couple of pieces to this effect, that these guys were so ham-fisted and stupid that it was fairly easy for journalists to catch them in the act. But that their replacements are more traditional creatures of Washington much more polished at what they do and therefore for more capable of doing the work begun by Pruitt and Zinke without attracting attention and that is dismantling the regulatory protections mainly on the environment. So the press did its job but does this necessarily mean that the public wins?
JON ALLSOP: Well, I was quite heartened to find out about David Bernhardt, the probable interim replacement for Zinke, to see that lots of news organizations already had stories up saying who he was--.
BOB GARFIELD: An energy lobbyist.
JON ALLSOP: Yeah but clearly it's harder, particularly, in our congested present news cycle to get people to pay attention to the nitty gritty of policy without maybe having that hook of trying to get your wife a job at Chick-fil-A or doing a kind of dodgy real estate deal or taking a private flight. I think those stories were useful to get the public to pay attention to the agenda that those figures. Now with less colorful figures in charge, that agenda's still going on and I think it can be harder to get the public to pay attention to that. But I don't think it's for wantof trying necessarily.
BOB GARFIELD: Jon, thank you very much.
JON ALLSOP: Thank you Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes C.G.R's newsletter The Media Today.