In Trump's Government, The 'Regulated Have Become The Regulators'

Originally published on August 25, 2017 10:36 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's in Washington today, speaking at a public radio conference. There has been a lot of reporting about the difficulty President Trump has experienced in pursuing parts of his policy agenda, such as repealing the Affordable Care Act. Our guest, New York Times correspondent Eric Lipton, says there's one goal the Trump administration has pursued aggressively with more success - rolling back government regulations.

Lipton is based in Washington, where he writes about lobbying, corporate agendas and Congress. He's reported on potential conflicts of interest involving the president and his family's business interests and about the administration's contentious relationship with the Office of Government Ethics. Now Lipton is directing a team of reporters in a project to monitor the administration's efforts to roll back government regulations and the role former industry lobbyists are playing as senior officials in many federal agencies.

Eric Lipton has worked at the New York Times since 1999. In 2015, he won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism for a series examining the explosion in lobbying of state attorneys general by corporate interests.

Well, Eric Lipton, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Did the Trump administration change the rules on lobbyists joining agencies that they lobbied for?

ERIC LIPTON: Yes, it did. The Trump administration adopted much of an ethics agreement that President Obama had initiated in 2009. But they made several critical changes. One of the most important one was that the Obama administration explicitly banned lobbyists from going to work in agencies that they had in the prior two years lobbied. And Trump removed that explicit restriction and has allowed quite a number of lobbyists to come into agencies to regulate the same sectors that they just a few months ago had been trying to influence.

DAVIES: At least they bring a certain knowledge of the field I guess. You know, apart from that two-year ban on a lobbyist going to work for an agency that it used to lobby, there's a separate provision that you could not work on an issue or a matter that you had lobbied on - that's more specific than simply joining an agency - unless a waiver is granted. You could grant a waiver, but it had to be a specific waiver for you to work on an issue that you had lobbied on. You want to just explain how that changed?

LIPTON: So Trump eliminated the prohibition on lobbyists coming in, but he kept the two-year ban in participating in the same matter. And so then the question becomes, well, how are they enforcing this two-year ban because there are now dozens of lobbyists and lawyers who represented private industry who have been placed into the Trump administration in the same sectors that they had worked in for the private industries.

But the question is, you know, how are we looking and knowing whether or not they are then working on essentially their former clients to-do lists but now with the power of the government agency that they're running?

DAVIES: Right. And in the past, when a specific waiver would be granted that says, OK, you can work on this matter that you previously lobbied on, the waiver would have a written explanation. And it would be public, right?

LIPTON: That's right. During the Obama administration, there was an agreement that anytime anyone was given a waiver, that waiver would be either posted on the White House website or shared with the Office of Government Ethics and made public. So we as reporters could look and see, well, this, you know, man or woman is working in the same area that they had previously been paid to represent. But we would know the conditions upon which they could do that and why they had been granted such a waiver.

Then when the Trump administration started, they initially were refusing to make those waivers public despite the fact that we were asking for them. And it became the subject of a pretty intense fight. And ultimately, they made some of them public, but they don't continue to post them.

DAVIES: So some are public, and some you - I guess there's no way of knowing (laughter) - right? - if such activity occurred if there wasn't something posted.

LIPTON: No. What we're doing at The New York Times is - and also in working with ProPublica, a nonprofit journalism investigative organization - is we're trying to track by looking at all of the hires across the federal government. We have a database that we are maintaining. And we're comparing all of those hires to the lobbying registration database. And so we're trying to track as many of the people who are going into the agencies who are lobbyists. And then we're looking at the work that they're doing.

And we're doing open Freedom of Information requests. We're trying to find out if waivers have been granted. And we're just tracking those people to see, what are they engaged in, and how are they perhaps continuing to help their former paid clients?

DAVIES: Do you want to give us a couple of the more prominent example of lobbyists who now appear to be working in agencies that they use to lobby?

LIPTON: One of the more prominent ones is Michael Catanzaro, who was a lobbyist for Devon Energy and also for an electric utility that operates some of the largest coal-burning power plants in the United States. And so he was lobbying on things like trying to block a rule that the EPA had passed that was going to limit methane emissions from oil and gas drilling sites across the United States. Methane is many times more potent as a climate change component than CO2. And methane also - when you release methane, you're often also releasing volatile organic chemicals, which are - you know, can be carcinogens and cause other health consequences.

So the EPA was trying to regulate methane emissions. And Michael Catanzaro was working for Devon Energy to try to kill that rule. So he then goes into the White House. And he also had previously been representing the largest - one of the largest coal-burning utilities in the United States. And he had been fighting the Clean Power Plan, which was trying to force coal-burning power plants to reduce their CO2 emissions.

And so once he gets to the White House, among the things that he does is he helps write an executive order that essentially instructs the federal agencies to terminate the Clean Power Plan and the methane rule. And so he is essentially continuing the work that he'd been doing on behalf of his private-sector clients. But he's now doing it as one of the most powerful, you know, policy people in the United States. And so you wonder, how is that possible?

So we were aware of Michael Catanzaro's shift. And I then went and interviewed a number of industry lobbyists who were lobbying the White House to try to get those rules repealed because they hated it. And now all of a sudden, they've got their former, you know, colleague and, you know, compatriot who is essentially helping run the show.

And I said, have you talked to Michael Catanzaro since he went into the White House? And they said, yes. And I said, how is this possible? I thought there was this two-year ban on participating in a particular matter that you had represented a client on. And so we - and then I asked the White House, well, can I see his waiver because he must have been granted a waiver. And they would not give it to me.

DAVIES: So that's where it stands. If there was a waiver, it's private. You just don't know.

LIPTON: No. After I wrote that story, the Office of Government Ethics said, you know what? This is an impossible situation. How can we have an ethics program if there - if we can't see the waivers? So the head of the Office of Government Ethics did what he called a data request, and he made a request of every federal agency. And he asked every federal agency for copies of any waivers that had been issued through April.

And as a result of that request - and there was a bit of a fight where initially the White House indicated that it may not comply with the request. But ultimately the White House complied. And there you go. On the day of the deadline, they - the White House issues a list of waivers that had been issued, and there's Michael Catanzaro. And he was in fact - had been granted a waiver to participate in the same matters that he had previously been paid to represent.

DAVIES: And the waiver had some explanation for this decision.

LIPTON: It said that he had certain expertise. And he had previously worked in the federal government. And there's no question that he has expertise. It's just that, to me, what is sort of striking is the extent to which the regulated have become the regulators. And it's happening across the federal government.

And it's just - the number of agencies where this is taking place is striking, and it's something that, you know, really merits a close examination and that we're determined to really look at what those people are doing and how much the work that they're doing lines up with the work that they had been paid to do just a few months ago.

DAVIES: You want to give us one more example?

LIPTON: There's a guy at the Department of Transportation Security Administration. And in this case, I don't know the extent to which he has participated in the same manner. But he was working for a company that was trying to sell the Transportation Security Administration new equipment that would do security screenings. And that company had just gotten its agreement from TSA, the airport screening agency, to do kind of actual testing in its laboratory to see whether or not this equipment was worth buying and spending, you know, potentially tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to install in airports in the United States.

And then the same gentleman, Chad Wolf, then became the chief of staff at TSA, which would - you know, as the chief of staff, you're involved in issues across the agency. And you know, if you're going to be making a major change in the way that you inspect carry-on baggage to look for explosives and then potentially commit to buying, you know, tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars in new equipment, you know, the chief of staff of the agency is going to be involved. So he is now the former lobbyist for the, you know - explosive detection equipment is now the chief of staff overseeing, you know, various things at the Transportation Security Administration.

There's a woman that is working in the Environmental Protection Agency who had worked for the chemical industry. And it was lobbying to try to limit the - kind of the strength of a law intended to regulate toxic chemicals. Now she's at the EPA, helping establish the rules that will regulate the same chemicals and the same companies that she just previously had represented.

And so I mean literally there are dozens of people who have made this shift from being the regulated to the regulators, and so - at a pace that I have going back to George W. Bush and being in Washington and covering administrations that I have not seen before.

DAVIES: You know, another source of information on how special interests' wield influences Washington is visitor logs to the White House. They used to be public. Has that changed?

LIPTON: Yeah. It's - there's quite a number of things that are happening in terms of transparency. And it was Obama, again - and I'm trying to, you know - when Obama was president, we wrote stories that questioned quite a number of things relative, particularly in terms of apparent collusion between the EPA and some of the environmental groups and on trying to promote policies that Obama supported. So you know, whoever is in power, we're going to look critically at and sort of deconstruct their activities.

But it is true that during Obama, he also instituted a policy where - after he had been sued of publishing the White House logs. And so you could see who's going into the White House. And Trump has discontinued that policy. So we do not know who is going into the White House on a regular basis to meet with the - his top advisers. And it was - it - that is another - is one of a number of forms of transparency that have been discontinued.

At the Environmental Protection Agency dating back to the 1980s, the administrator - because the notion was that the EPA is there to protect, you know, our air and our water. It's not just the - you know, we all are breathing and drinking or - that water and that air. And so therefore the EPA had had a practice for quite a long time both in Democrat and Republican administrations of publishing the calendars of the - the appointment calendars of all of the top administrators because essentially it is the public's agency.

And the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, has discontinued that practice, so we no longer know who he's meeting with. The only way you can get that is to do a Freedom of Information request. And even then, you have to fight. You have to almost threaten to sue to get a copy of the calendar because they're so slow in responding to Freedom of Information requests at the EPA.

DAVIES: Eric Lipton is a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for The New York Times. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Eric Lipton. He's a Washington-based correspondent for The New York Times. He writes about government relations, corporate agendas and Congress. You know, I think a lot of people learned more about the Office of Government Ethics in the past eight months than they ever had. And the Trump administration clashed a lot with Walter Shaub, who was the head of that office. You want to just explain what the Office of Government Ethics is and does?

LIPTON: Sure. And just as myself, as a reporter that's written about ethics in Washington for, you know, over a decade now, I had not in fact dealt that frequently with the Office of Government Ethics until the start of the Trump administration. And it is an office that is not an investigatory agency. It does not also have explicit enforcement powers. It is more in charged with trying to prevent ethics problems from occurring before they happen as opposed to penalizing people who do things that are inappropriate.

So the office is actually quite small. It's only about 70 employees so that it's supposed to be somehow establishing ethics standards across, you know, the entire federal government. And so what it mostly does is it sets standards and guidance for each federal agency that then the - each federal agency has its own ethics officer who follows the guidance that's set by the Office of Government Ethics. And so for the most part, it was a kind of very quiet, you know wonkish place where no one ever really knew the name of who was the head of OGE, as it's called.

And it was not until Trump was elected and President Trump began to make motions that he was not going to divest of his personal financial interests that for the first time we all started to get to know the Office of Government Ethics because the guy who ran the place, Walter Shaub, even before Trump was sworn in, began to say publicly that this is wrong and that all presidents, you know, in modern times have divested of their financial interests that would present a conflict of interest and that Trump should be doing the same and that by simply turning over all of his real estate assets and other business assets to his sons, that he's - you know, the management of it - that he was still going to have potential conflicts of interest.

And so Walter Shaub began to say that publicly, including a speech he gave at the Brookings in Washington that was very unusual for the head of OGE to take such a public stand against the president-elect. And so we all began to get to know Walter Shaub. And I actually met him for the first time through that process.

DAVIES: He finally left the office, and you recently interviewed him. And he rendered some pretty strong opinions about what's going on. What did he say?

LIPTON: Yeah, he thinks that - the United States, for decades, has played a role, globally, as essentially the kind of, like, the older person in the room that's giving advice to the rest of the world about fighting corruption. And, you know, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is a law in the United States that prohibits companies from paying bribes to foreign government officials to get business, for example. And so an American company can be charged and convicted of a crime if it pays a bribe.

So the United States has been trying to encourage companies across the world to have more ethical practices in their governments and to remove the relationship between those who govern and those who have financial interests so that, you know, the oligarchs don't - that there's - that it's more of a market-based economy and not one that which people in political power can make decisions that benefit their own personal interest.

So then we go into an administration where the president is going repeatedly to his own, you know, brands, to his golf clubs, to his hotels, to his private club in a way that is bringing, you know, brand attention and marketing value to them. And it blurs the lines that the United States had spent decades trying to establish and preach to other countries that they should follow.

So Walter Shaub said that President Trump has made a mockery of the ethics program in the United States and that there is an ethics crisis that is underway in the United States. And in the interview that I did with him two days before he left his job - because his term as the head of OGE was coming to an end, so he stepped down prior to that formal ending. He knew he would not be reappointed. He said that - there - that Congress needs to take action to strengthen the power of the Office of Government Ethics because it never anticipated a president like President Trump that would present such a challenge to his office.

DAVIES: So the Office of Government Ethics is, in many respects, an advisory body, right? It helps people stay out of trouble. He thinks it ought to change in some specific ways. What were they?

LIPTON: He thinks that it should have subpoena power, for example, to - in certain situations, to require federal agencies to provide information that he requests. So, for example, when he does this request for copies of all waivers, if the agencies or the White House says, no, sorry, we're not giving it to you, that he would have the power to actually demand, you know, and force that information to be provided.

He also thought that the president should be subject to conflict of interest rules like all other federal employees are. And he thought that certain powers of his office should be enhanced so that, even if you have - I mean, the Office of Government Ethics was created after the Nixon, you know, scandal. And there was a decision that there needed to be an office that would not have the power to enforce ethics across the government but to encourage ethical governance.

But ever since then, basically, there've always been presidents both from the Republican and Democratic Party that have done whatever was necessary to support the efforts of this office. And if ever there was an agency, for example, that didn't respond the request that OGE asked, then the OGE would go to the White House and say, can you make a phone call to tell, you know, the Health and Human Services, you know, office there that they need to answer my questions?

And that always happened. And so there never was a need for more explicit powers to ensure that there would be compliance. But now you have a White House that isn't necessarily committed to that effort. And so that's why he's suggesting that there should be changes.

DAVIES: There have been other presidents, particularly Republicans, who have promised to roll back regulations on business and, you know, I - Reagan, I believe, you write, wanted to end the requirement for air bags on passenger vehicles. That didn't happen. How aggressive and successful has the Trump administration been at actually achieving this?

LIPTON: I mean, I think if there's a single thing that is actually happening so far during this administration that is kind of reshaping government and affecting the population broadly, that it is the - what is going on in the regulatory area. And so, I mean, Trump appointed and has had confirmed a new Supreme Court justice. That was a major thing. But for the most part, his legislative agenda has not really gone anywhere.

But on - you know, more quietly, in each of the agencies across the federal government, the - his appointees have been rolling back rules. Many of them were rules that were only enacted during the Obama administration, but they are - it's the number of kind of repeals and reconsiderations that are underway in just about every sector of the government from, you know, health, and the environment, and financial regulatory matters and workplace safety. And it is - it's pretty extraordinary. And it is happening at such a rapid pace that it's sort of almost impossible, as reporters, to keep up with it. But we are attempting to.

And we have a team of reporters in New York and Washington who've been removed from other duties and are only working on examining the regulatory rollbacks and how the regulatory rollbacks in particular stand to benefit some of the industry players who are now calling the shots, now that they've come into the government and are actually now helping make these choices to roll back the same regulations that they had fought when they were on the private sector.

DAVIES: Eric Lipton is a correspondent for The New York Times based in Washington. He'll be back after a break to talk about some of the officials in the Trump administration who are rolling back government regulations, including EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who takes some unusual security measures while working at the office. Also, David Bianculli tells us about Netflix's new Marvel Comics series "The Defenders." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's in Washington speaking at a public radio conference. Our guest today is Eric Lipton, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington correspondent for The New York Times. He's now directing a team of reporters who are writing about the Trump administration's efforts to roll back government regulations and the role of former lobbyists now in senior positions in many federal agencies.

You know, businesses have long felt that, you know, government regulators don't really understand their industries, and their problems and the value of the jobs that they create. And there's this - long been this belief that, you know, regulation is overly burdensome. There's also this broader ideological notion that there is this administrative state, this cadre of unaccountable people in Washington who are out of touch and way too powerful - both forces at work here.

LIPTON: I mean I think that it is true. And I was writing a story about the reversal of position among many Republicans in Congress over this sort of climate change and carbon trading and, you know, trying to understand, how did we go from a place where John McCain ran for president, you know, a decade ago and advocating, you know, significant regulatory action to address climate change to a place where we have a president who questions whether or not climate change is real and is pulling us out of the Paris accords and is, you know, rolling back some of those same regulations.

And I think that part of the answer for that is that there was such an incredible regulatory assault that occurred over the last eight years that it - you know, it created a backlash. And I - and you know, it unified opposition. And when I wrote that in a story, which I did with my colleague Coral Davenport, I got, you know, a lot of nasty responses on Twitter from a number of people even in the Obama administration themselves, saying that I was, you know, blaming the Democrats for what was happening now and, you know, the rollbacks that were occurring.

But the point is that there is no question that Obama himself made a decision in his second term, frustrated with Congress, to use the power of the pen to essentially write regulations in many sectors not just in climate change but to just regulate, you know, through his executive power, many things that he thought were necessary that he was not able to get done through Congress.

And what we're seeing now is a backlash against that. And it is - the reason that Trump is so aggressively rolling back many of these same rules is because the industry sectors were so angry at the costs and consequences of all those rules. And I'm sure that there are areas where the rules were just - there were too many rules, and the cost of complying with them were excessive and perhaps unreasonable.

And so that's what we are living through right now. And the question is, in the effort to try to, you know, balance the regulatory interest of agencies and the interests of the public and being sufficiently protected, you know, is the pendulum swinging too far back in the industry side?

DAVIES: Right. You know, whether there are too many rules or not I guess is a matter of debate. And of course a lot of people would say there's compelling evidence of climate change that, you know, presented President Obama with the need for urgent action. Given that the Republican Congress wasn't going to undertake it, he had little choice. Can you say that there are too many rules? Can you be clear about that?

LIPTON: Yeah. I think that the federal government focuses on adopting new rules, and it doesn't think a lot about which rules are no longer relevant and perhaps should be rescinded. And so that's the nature of - the federal government's thinking about things it needs to do to promote and protect, you know, the health and well-being of society and that - and so therefore, it's focusing on those things that threaten the health and well-being.

But it perhaps is not often enough thinking about the rules that no longer are relevant. And so I do think that there is a value to re-examining all the rules and deciding which ones are just costly but not actually helpful. And there certainly are in certain situations too many rules, and some of them should be repealed.

DAVIES: Right. You know, I've always had this idea that the rule-making process within the federal government is long and cumbersome. And it's hard to get rules in place and also kind of hard to unwind them. How has this administration been so effective so quickly in reversing a lot of these rules?

LIPTON: I mean actually they were a bit sloppy, you know, right off the gate. And the EPA has had already, twice now - on the methane rule that I mentioned earlier, Pruitt came in, and he simply announced that he was not going to enforce. And he was going to suspend the implementation of the same methane rule. So you know - and here's the same rule that the industry hated.

Then, all of a sudden, the industry people are - have become - regulators are people who were, you know, like Scott Pruitt, who had received a lot of funding, and the Republican Attorney General's Organization, who had received a lot of funding - now are in power. So they blocked the regulation. But they did it in a sort of crude way. He simply signed some paperwork and said, we are not going to implement this rule. But you can't do that.

I mean the rule-making process in the United States government has a record that is essentially - establishes why this rule has been passed and is in the public interest. And the record is sort of part of its legal standing. And you can't simply declare at the end of this long process to create the rule that I simply decide that I'm not going to implement it.

And so environmental groups sued to challenge his suspension of the rule. And a court intervened and has already notified the EPA that they must enforce that rule until they go through essentially a new rule-making process to revise or revoke the rule based on a public record that establishes why that's the right step. Pruitt announced that he was not going to implement a new ozone standard for, you know, how clean the air is. And he - after he was sued in that case, he revoked his decision to not implement the new ozone standard.

So they are doing so many of these rollbacks. I think they need - they're starting to learn they need to do them more carefully and that careful means time-consuming. It's going to take them, you know, two to three years. What you essentially have to do if you want to revoke a rule that was finalized during the Obama administration is you need to go through a new rule-making process, which is something that could take two to three years. And so they're going to have to do that. And they have started that process, and it's happening in agencies across the government.

DAVIES: But there are cases where rules were pending or in the works that they could put the brakes on relatively quickly, right?

LIPTON: Yeah. They have a lot of jurisdiction when it comes to a rule that was, you know, not yet fully implemented. And they then could stop it from being finalized, or they could write the regulations themselves in a way that was - reflected their goals. And so - or they could simply, you know, not move the rule forward. And so the - they are - every, you know, few months, the federal government sets its - what's called a regulatory agenda. And this all sounds, you know, so completely wonkish and irrelevant to most people, but it actually affects the American public.

And, you know, like, for example, how many miles per gallon does your car get? And so the Obama administration had reached an agreement with the automobile industry that it was going to increase the fuel efficiency standards for all cars manufactured in the future. And now the EPA is considering rolling that rule back because, you know, the revisions were still underway.

I mean so there are both the final rules that are in place and that they are going to need to rewrite, and there are other rules that were in the process of being implemented that they are simply stopping or, you know, are abandoning.

DAVIES: And you write right there's something called the Congressional Review Act, which the administration has taken advantage of. What is this?

LIPTON: That's, like, the most ultimate power, which, essentially - Congress, for 60 working days after a regulation is enacted by any administration, has the power to essentially - to repeal that rule. And it - not only does it - can they do that with a simple majority, but it also prohibits the federal government from adopting a new rule that is just like the one that has been repealed by Congress.

And so it's a very strong power that Congress has under the Congressional Review Act, and it had barely been used prior to the Trump administration. And we now are outside of that 60-working-day window, but there were - I think it was 13 times that that provision was used to repeal Obama-era regulations. And that was, I mean, it was - had only been used once before.

And it had - this is a law that had existed prior - back to the Clinton administration. So this was, you know, they - that was something that the Republicans in Congress, you know, took advantage of, to the extent that they could, to eliminate rules that they didn't like that were the top of their list.

DAVIES: Eric Lipton is a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for The New York Times. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Eric Lipton. He's a Washington-based correspondent for The New York Times. He writes about government relations, corporate agendas and Congress, and has recently been writing about the Trump administration's efforts to decrease regulation in the government.

You recently wrote about Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, and some unusual methods of management and security measures. What's he up to?

LIPTON: Well, Scott Pruitt has went into his position as the head of the EPA determined to - you know, he has this slogan, back to basics. I mean, he's determined to try to narrow the scope of the EPA's operations to a more traditional role of things like focusing on, you know, Superfund sites, which are, you know, clearly toxic sites that need to be cleaned up and that the federal government has a role in doing.

And he thinks that the federal government overreached under Obama, and perhaps in prior times, in terms of becoming too aggressive in its demands on private companies. And so he has set out to try to trim the mission of the EPA. And he - while he's doing this, he is under intense scrutiny. All you have to do is look at the freedom of information - the log of request which are pending and had been submitted by reporters and nonprofit, you know, environmental groups.

And it's a - and isn't it pretty extraordinary array of things that people have asked to have access to about Pruitt. People have asked for his web browser, for his telephone call log, for, you know, his travel vouchers, for his text messages. I mean, so the guy is getting, you know - you know what I mean?

People are looking at everything he's doing. And so he is sort of paranoid. I mean, that's what it appears, and perhaps for good reason. And so we had people that we interviewed - Coral Davenport and I worked on the story, as well, together - who told us that, for example, that when they went into his office to have meetings - these are EPA employees - they were told to leave their cellphones at the door - and apparently, because of concern that maybe someone would be recording conversations.

Or that when he wanted changes made in certain regulations that would reflect his kind of views that the regulations should be, you know, weakened or that the rules should be loosened, he would do it verbally instead of in writing so that there would be no written record, and that he is not using - he's not, himself, writing a great number of emails.

He, also, is traveling with a security detail. For the first time, the EPA administrator has, you know, 24-hour security that is - wherever he goes is with him, even inside the EPA offices. And it may be, you know, justified because he has a lot of people who are not appreciative of the things that he's doing. And there's this suggestion, again, from some people at the EPA that he - sometimes he gets phone calls. And he'll leave his office, and then continue the phone call in another office, perhaps, you know, concerned that maybe someone is listening in to his phone call.

So what we wrote was a story about all of these steps that he's taken that suggest that he's operating sort of secretively. He also is not publishing, as I said, his calendar, which shows the appointments, who he's meeting with. And the only way you can get that is to do a freedom of information request. And then you - often, there's a great delay in the response from the agency as to when you can get that calendar. So if you are - not only are you making major changes in rules, but you're doing it in a secretive way, you draw more scrutiny. And so it's requiring us to look more closely. And that's what we're doing.

DAVIES: What have Pruitt or the agency said about this?

LIPTON: Coral approached them. And she asked for access to Pruitt to do an interview with him for this story. And we spent a couple weeks trying to set up that interview, and we were never granted the request. And then, ultimately, we emailed them a detailed list of questions on going over each of these items individually. And essentially, they just got back to us and said, these are all rumors, and they're untrue.

DAVIES: Pruitt, I mean, people who know his history find him an interesting choice for this role, to say the least. I mean, he was the attorney general of Oklahoma, and sued the EPA numerous times and has had a history of running into issues with things like email, right?

LIPTON: Right. I mean, I, you know, first met Scott Pruitt in 2014 when I went to Oklahoma City, and was working on a series of stories about state attorneys general and was looking at him because of the relationship that he had with some of the major oil and gas companies that were challenging the Obama rules. And he was helping solicit, you know, large contributions to support other Republican attorneys general at the same time as he was then working with those companies to try to challenge the Obama rules.

And Pruitt, during his tenure, ended up suing the federal government at least 14 times over environmental rules. And the thing, you know, you have to wonder is that these are the same rules that he is now, as the head of the EPA, is now actually working to overturn. And so, for example, the methane rule - he sued to challenge the methane rule. He intervened at explicit request of Devon Energy, which not only asked him to intervene with federal agencies, but wrote letters. And then he took those letters and put them on his own stationery, and simply signed them.

And that became apparent when I did a freedom of information request when he was Oklahoma's attorney general and saw that they had written the letters that he then signed and sent in. And so he - it's - you just have - you're sort of like, how is it possible that the guy that sued the EPA 14 times and that has cases that are still pending in federal court could now essentially be on the other side of that lawsuit and be repealing those same rules or be telling the federal government how it should respond to those lawsuits that he filed? So what he has said is that I'm not going to participate in the lawsuits.

I'm going to recuse myself from those lawsuits because clearly, he would have a conflict of interest because how can you be on both sides of the lawsuit? But he's still participating in making policy decisions that affect those same rules that he sued over. So that is something that is playing out and is an unusual set up.

DAVIES: Are there other regulatory actions that he has taken that we should know about? I mean, he's been a busy man I know.

LIPTON: I mean, it goes, you know, across the spectrum from the waters of the U.S. rule that tries to protect drinking water quality in the United States by expanding federal oversight over certain surface waters, to the Clean Power Plan that tries to limit climate change, to a pesticide that that EPA scientists concluded should be banned because it was potentially resulting in developmental disabilities of children because of exposures.

And the scientist advised that he ban it. And then he came in and Dow Chemical opposed the banning. And he took Dow Chemical's side and did not ban that chemical. And so, I mean, it really is, you know, everywhere you just about look in the EPA's activities, there are radical changes that are taking place in the regulatory agenda. And it's something that really impacts people.

And it's something that will resonate for, you know, 10, 20, 30 years in a way that is far beyond the 4 to 8 year tenure of the president himself.

DAVIES: Eric Lipton, thanks so much for speaking with us.

LIPTON: Thank you.

DAVIES: Eric Lipton is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington correspondent for The New York Times based in Washington. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews Netflix's new Marvel Comics series "The Defenders." This is FRESH AIR.

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