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When reporters work too hard to earn a Pulitzer Prize for orchestrating the political assassination of one of the president’s most effective cabinet members, sometimes, in their zeal, they can make a big mistake.
That is exactly what happened over the weekend when the New York Times was forced to post a lengthy correction to its latest hit piece on Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s EPA administrator. While the correction itself reveals a major blunder, it obfuscates the real outrage about the original story: The reporters went after Pruitt’s daughter.
The June 15 front-page article documented a laundry list of imaginary crimes at the EPA, such as staffers trying to score coveted sports tickets for the boss and arranging his meetings with former donors or industry pals—otherwise known as standard operating procedure in D.C. and every political power center in the nation. The Times reporters raged that Pruitt “had no hesitation in leveraging his stature as a cabinet member to solicit favors himself.” Last July, Pruitt allegedly asked an aide to negotiate “access” for him to attend the Washington Nationals’ batting practice. Oh, the horror! The piece was another installment in the paper’s relentless campaign against Pruitt, a top-tier target of the anti-Trump mob.
But in their eagerness to inflict another bruise on the much-abused EPA administrator, they hit his daughter, McKenna, a graduate student at the University of Virginia.
The Times accused Pruitt of using his post at the top of the EPA to obtain a letter of recommendation from a former Virginia lawmaker to help his daughter get into the prestigious UVA law school. To support its claim, the paper reported that the lawmaker even appeared on Pruitt’s official EPA calendar.
The lawmaker, William Howell, a friend of Pruitt’s for 20 years, did indeed write a letter for McKenna: In November 2016, when Pruitt was Oklahoma attorney general, more than three months before he was sworn in as Trump’s EPA chief.
In its correction, the Times admitted:
The law school, which had declined to comment for the article because of privacy concerns, issued a statement on Saturday saying Ms. Pruitt had given the school permission to confirm that she had been offered early admission in late November 2016 and that the “application was evaluated according to our usual admissions procedures.” The material about Ms. Pruitt’s application has been removed from the article.
The original article did not mention Pruitt had been offered early admission, either.
Set aside for a moment the absurdity of criticizing a parent for asking an influential friend to write a college recommendation letter for his child: The reporters never saw the letter they referenced. And Howell’s name appearing on Pruitt’s official schedule had nothing to do with McKenna, even though the reporters tried to imply otherwise.
But the damage was already done. Media outlets quickly regurgitated the Times storyline about McKenna Pruitt. Vanity Fair writer Bess Levin falsely claimed that Pruitt used his “perk” as a cabinet member to “get his daughter into law school.” Reason cited the UVA letter in an online piece contemplating whether Pruitt will lose his job. Kathryn Rubino, an editor at Above the Law, went full-on Mean Girl, questioning whether McKenna really had the grades to get into UVA law school (”we’ll never know,” she sneered) then quickly consoled herself by writing that “at least with the blind grading in law schools, whatever grades McKenna receives—good, bad or indifferent—she’ll get all on her own.”
Of course, the Washington press corps offered no speculation about parental political influence when the Times reported Malia Obama was accepted into Harvard, the alma mater of both her parents. No article in the Times that questioned whether former Vice President Joe Biden helped his granddaughter get into the University of Pennsylvania, where he has set up shop since leaving office. Or if former National Security Advisor Susan Rice had someone important, say, perhaps the president, write a letter to help get her son into Stanford.
The Times published zero articles over the course of Obama’s eight years to expose whether a cabinet member or administration official had asked a political pal to write a recommendation letter for their kid to get into college. You know why? Because it would have been a stupid, pointless article, and the piece would have been scorned for unfairly attacking the child of a public official.
But we know those rules don’t apply in the Trump era—particularly for Scott Pruitt—who has been under almost daily assault by the Times.
There is another shady twist in the McKenna Pruitt hit piece. The Times relied on information from Kevin Chmielewski, a disgruntled former aide to Pruitt, who is described as having had “a falling out” with his ex-boss. (The paper even printed a nice photo of him.) But that isn’t the whole story. Chmielewski is a bit of an odd fellow; he has threatened EPA staff and at least one female reporter. After he was asked to resign earlier this year, Chmielewski pledged to “retaliate.” He told Washington Free Beacon reporter Susan Crabtree that he would “spend the rest of his career” going after her for asking questions about his inflated résumé and run-ins with law enforcement: He called Crabtree “ridiculous and idiotic.” The former advance man for John McCain and Mitt Romney has other issues, too, as documented by Michael Bastasch at the Daily Caller.
None of this was included in the Times article that presented Chmielewski as a legitimate source.
Since the day after Trump was elected, the Times has published 526 articles about—or mentioning—Scott Pruitt. The paper’s obsession with the EPA chief is not professional or even political; it’s personal. And in its desperate attempt to take him out, the Times again relied on unverified hearsay that the paper ultimately had to correct—and yet without having to pay any sort of price. Only McKenna Pruitt will. Just as they hoped.