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Ex-EPA boss: Trump asking for climate experts is scary

Michael Knigge
December 14, 2016

The Trump team’s request for the Energy Department to name climate change experts sends a chilling message, ex-EPA chief Christine Todd Whitman told DW. She also detailed her concerns about Trump’s Russia stance.

USA Donald Trump Wahlkampf North Carolina
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Lo Scalzo

DW: What does it say to you about the Donald Trump administration's stance on climate change and environment that the president-elect has nominated Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)?

Christine Todd Whitman: And Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy. It is confusing because Trump will get up and say, 'I have an open mind on this' and yet everyone he appoints seems not to have an open mind on the issue of climate change, but seems to be very strongly against it. The president is the one who determines policy, but is his policy what he says or his policy what he does. I am afraid it is more in line with what he does, which is where the administration intends to go on addressing the issue of carbon and climate change.

You already mentioned Rick Perry, whom Trump nominated to lead the Energy Department. What's your response to the Trump transition team asking the Department of Energy to provide lists of employees who attended climate change meetings?

Frankly, that scares me. That's not a tactic that one would or should use in this country. Frankly, if they attended anything related to climate change it was because the incumbent administration believes in the issue and they sent them. That's what you want public servants to do. Civil servants are supposed work for their boss. And their boss at this point still is the Obama administration. And the Obama administration believes that climate change is a real issue that we should take seriously and one on which we should take some action. So they were doing what they were supposed to do, so there is no reason to have these lists. I can't imagine why you would use them. It sends a very chilling message to everyone in the departments and agencies.

Christine Todd Whitman Ex-Governeurin von New Jersey
Christine Todd WhitmanImage: privat

You headed the EPA under George W. Bush. What is your fear of what might happen with the agency under Scott Pruitt?

They can't undo every regulation. If a regulation is final, if it has been tested in the courts and it is law, it is the rule of law and they can't just wave a wand and do away with it. But what he can do is first really slow down enforcement of existing regulations to get at the bad actors. He can ensure that we don't have any new regulations. They can go back and take a look at everything that has been deemed an endangerment finding, which means that the agency has determined that it is in fact a threat to human health or the environment. The issue of carbon was such a topic and it went up to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court said that the agency was correct in determining that carbon was a factor and problem for human health and the environment. So that's a settled case as far as I am concerned. Whether you care about climate change or not you should care about carbon and dirty air. And I hope that that is not something they can just walk away from.

Back in 2005 you wrote a book that was critical of the George W. Bush administration called "It's My Party, Too: Taking Back the Republican Party And Bringing the Country Together Again."  Now with Donald Trump leading the GOP, is this still your party?

Yes in the sense that I believe that government is best when it comes from the people and works its way up. I do believe in a limited government, but I also believe in a role for government particularly in an area where what one state does impacts another or where there is a real knowledge about what is good and right for the protection of human health and the environment. And that is where the federal government has a real role to play.

USA Rick Perry, desiginierter Energieminister nach Treffen mit Donald Trump
Trump's plan to make Rick Perry Energy Secretary has proven to be controversialImage: Getty Images/AFP/K. Betancur

So I am a fiscal conservative, a social moderate and there are a lot of Republicans like me, but they don't dare raise their heads because those controlling the levers of the party right now are not so inclined.

What do you make of the fact that Donald Trump has postponed a press conference where he wanted to detail his plans to avoid possible conflicts of interests by clearly separating his business interests from his political duties as president until after the Electoral College vote next week?

Unfortunately, I am not surprised. He has got some real challenges. And from what he has indicated thus far he is really not going to separate himself from it. If he turns it over to his children there are inevitable conflicts. He clearly is going to talk to his children and it would be very surprising if they wouldn't tell him from time to time how his businesses are doing. That is something that will be very hard to separate. And he has a number of cabinet appointments who will have to give up a lot and [Rex] Tillerson is one of them. They will have to put their shares into blind trusts and they will have to divest themselves of things. And the president needs to do that as well and convince people that in fact the decisions he makes are in the best interests of the country and not in the best interest of the Trump organization. That's going to be harder to the degree he keeps putting these things off - not releasing his tax returns and not being as forthcoming as people would like to see and have a right to see in a president.

Speaking of Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil has been tapped to become America's top diplomat and has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. What is your view of that nomination?

Rex W. Tillerson Exxon Mobil CEO
ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson has been tapped to be Trump's Secretary of StateImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Curry

Clearly Tillerson is a very accomplished person, a bright man. He is a diplomat in the sense that he negotiated deals across state and country borders, so he is confident and capable. But it is obviously concerning when you have Donald Trump refusing to acknowledge that Russia may have had anything to do with the hacking that occurred during the election. Because no one is saying we should throw out the election because of the potential Russian interference with the process. But what we are saying is this is dangerous, this is bad stuff. You don't allow another country to come in and disrupt your political process, and to cast it into doubt and to encourage people question the outcome of elections, because they are trying to manipulate it. We ought to look into it and we ought to find out about it.

I am not saying in any way that this takes away his electoral victory. He won, that part is over. Whether you like it or not he is going to be the president for the next four years. But this idea that you can't even look at Russia is concerning when you have someone like Tillerson, who you put in who also has very has good ties with Vladimir Putin. And if you watch what Putin has done with Ukraine, Georgia and around Eastern Europe and what he wants to do extending his influence even in South America I think we have reason to be concerned to how close we get.

Christine Todd Whitman led the EPA under George W. Bush from 2001 until her resignation in 2003 over demands by Vice President Dick Cheney to loosen air pollution rules. Before that Whitman, a Republican, served as the first female governor of New Jersey from 1994 until 2001.