It feels some days as if the ordinary laws of political physics have been suspended. Politics operates by unseen but generally predictable forces. Go too far and the mechanism of political gravity will bring you down.
Not now. Not reliably, anyway. This unsettling development has manifested itself, most recently, in the otherwise far different cases of Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt and Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens.
The Pruitt situation involves greed, entitlement and ethical obtuseness. The Greitens matter involves sex, entitlement and moral obtuseness. But they are linked by the principal actors’ convictions that the usual political rules have become inoperative and that they can somehow survive the storm of outrage.
In any normal administration, at any normal time, Pruitt would have been gone weeks ago. To switch metaphors from physics to medicine, the political body rallies to protect itself against infection. The continuing drip-drip-drip of stories about Pruitt’s ethical missteps should have caused President Trump to reject him and congressional Republicans to demand his ouster.
To recap the allegations, although not in full: the ludicrously low $50-a-night “rent” at a townhouse owned by a lobbyist’s wife; the first-class travel, on the unconvincing excuse of security concerns; the obliviousness to spending public funds (see, $43,000 soundproof phone booth); the overweening sense of petty entitlement (sirens blaring en route to Le Diplomate).
In short, this is not a man who understands the meaning of public service and the ethical boundaries governing those who occupy public office. He should be gone, and perhaps he will be, eventually.
But the reason he has held on is that in Trump’s Washington, and in Republicans’ moral universe, ideological usefulness and competence outweigh ethical niceties. At the EPA, Pruitt has been a relentless warrior for deregulation and dismantling every Obama era regulation in sight. He is doing what Trump and Republicans want and, unlike so many members of this administration, doing it reasonably effectively.
So criticism is muted — it passed for big news when John Kennedy, R-La., said Pruitt should “stop acting like a chucklehead” — and the pageant of malfeasance moves on to the next set of astonishing events.
In that sense, the Pruitt situation is reminiscent of the prevailing Republican response to news reports that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore preyed on teenagers: the seat was too important to let Moore fail. The difference is that Alabama voters eventually got their say on Moore. Pruitt’s fate, by contrast, lies in the hands of those who have already proved themselves morally compromised.
Which takes us outside the capital, to a legislative report on the sordid sexual adventures of Missouri’s governor that might as well have been titled “50 Shades of Greitens.” To read the report is to understand that this is not your ordinary tawdry story about marital infidelity — a private matter, in Greitens’ telling, that occurred before he took office and is between him and his wife.
No. In describing the relationship between Greitens and his hairdresser, the report details allegations of sexual violence and nonconsensual sexual acts, along with a clear threat, if she went public, to expose the hairdresser online, with a photograph that she did not consent to his taking. “Don’t even mention my name to anybody at all, because if you do, I’m going to take these pictures,” the report quotes the woman as saying Greitens told her. “They are going to be everywhere, and then everyone will know what a little whore you are.” Greitens is to stand trial next month on a felony charge of invasion of privacy stemming from the photo.
Greitens presents a reverse Moore scenario: There is time for the Republican Party to salvage its chance to win a competitive Senate election, in which Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is challenging Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. So the last few days have seen a parade of state Republicans, led by Hawley, calling on Greitens to resign.
Certainly, history offers some solace to politicians willing to endure the humiliation of a sex scandal. Recall the story of Grover Cleveland and an illegitimate child, and the campaign chant, “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa?” Recall, more recently, the repulsive details of Bill Clinton’s encounters with Monica Lewinsky.
Yet the ordinary laws of political gravity — the state’s biggest newspapers have said Greitens must go — would counsel that these allegations, involving not just sexual perversion but outright assault, are not survivable. But there is Greitens, resisting, calling the report “tabloid trash” and assailing “a political witch hunt.” Sound familiar?
That Greitens and Pruitt remain in office, as of this writing, says something — not just about them, but about the degraded state of our politics.