EPA Transition Leader, Longtime Foe of Regulation, to Stay on at Agency

Don Benton, who helped run Donald Trump's campaign, will keep a permanent role at the agency, as acting administrator urges staff to continue science-based work.

The EPA's acting administrator Catherine McCabe video message to staff
Catherine McCabe, acting chief of the EPA, taped a video message to staff that said transition leader Don Benton would stay at the agency. Credit: EPA, via YouTube

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The head of President Donald Trump’s transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency—former Washington State Sen. Don Benton—will be staying on after the transition as the agency’s senior White House adviser, the EPA’s acting administrator Catherine McCabe announced in a video to employees.

For the past few weeks Benton has been the main conduit for bringing instructions from the new administration to the EPA’s acting leaders pending confirmation of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a staunch critic of the agency, as its new administrator. In his permanent role, Benton will in effect be the White House’s eyes and ears at the agency.

Benton, a Republican, had run Trump’s campaign in six states: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and Hawaii. He previously served 20 years in the Washington State Senate, from 1996 to 2016, where he consistently voted against environmental protections. According to the green group Washington Conservation Voters, which tracks the environmental records of local lawmakers, he has a lifetime rating of 26 percent.

Benton took the helm of the EPA transition last month, along with Washington State Sen. Doug Ericksen. Ericksen has been serving as the acting communications director for the agency transition. Meanwhile, Benton has been advising the EPA staff on the new administration’s policies and executive orders. That includes the Jan. 24 executive order directing federal agencies to expedite environmental reviews for certain infrastructure projects and a Jan. 30 executive order on reducing regulations.

McCabe said in the video that 11 members of the transition team have been sworn in as EPA employees. “You will start to meet them as they join in more of the regular meetings at the headquarters programs offices. I know you will make them feel welcome,” McCabe said in the video.


She then seemed to suggest EPA staff should defend their science-based work in the face of potential pushback by the new administration. “It is very important that we do our best to assist the transition team in learning and understanding not only the incredible scope and variety of the work that we do but also the principles that guide our work,” she said.

“More than ever it is critical to demonstrate that all our work is governed and supported by our bedrock principles, faithfully following the law and ensuring that the best science informs everything that we do.”

McCabe also addressed staff concerns about reports of climate-change information being scrubbed from EPA webpages. “I would like to allay the fears and rumors that some scientific data and information are being deleted,” she said. “That is not the case. The only changes that have been made…are ordinary housekeeping changes that have been made by EPA career employees.” She then stressed that EPA is taking steps to preserve and make available its scientific data and related information.

“Unfortunately, this video is sad to watch and I don’t think it will make any serious impact on employee morale,” Liz Purchia, the former head of communications at EPA, wrote in an email to InsideClimate News. “Rather than working with career leadership to deliver a message that they’re listening to staff and have the agency’s back, the acting agency head is forced to read a script crafted by Trump’s team.”

McCabe will continue serving as the acting administrator until Trump’s nominee to head the agency, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is confirmed. A full Senate vote on Pruitt’s confirmation has not been set.