In a White House speech that exhaustively documented his administration's environmental efforts, President Trump issued a new full-throated denunciation of the Green New Deal championed by top Democrats including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, saying the proposal would devastate the economy and hit minorities the hardest.
The address was aimed at publicizing the often under-reported work by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as firing a political shot across the bow of Democrats who largely have dominated the conversation on climate change and related issues. It came as polls have shown Americans increasingly voicing concern over the environment.
"We have only one America. We have only one planet," Trump said at one point. But, "while we're focused on practical solutions, more than 100 Democrats in Congress now support the so-called Green New Deal. Their plan is estimated to cost our economy nearly $100 trillion -- a number unthinkable, a number not affordable even in the best of times."
Trump continued: "It'll kill millions of jobs, it'll crush the dreams of the poorest Americans, and disproportionately harm minority communities. I will not stand for it. We will defend the environment, but we will also defend American sovereignty, American prosperity, and we will defend American jobs."
The EPA, Trump said, has seen success by retooling and working on more practical solutions, including by issuing more "Superfund" grants to clean up polluted sites.
"We've refocused the EPA back on its core mission, and last year the agency completed more Superfund hazardous waste cleanups than any year of the previous administrations, and set records of almost every year -- we have done tremendous work on Superfunds," Trump said, emphasizing cleanup efforts in Michigan and Missouri.
"A strong economy is vital to maintaining a healthy environment," Trump asserted.
"Trump's environmental record is such a toxic disaster it should be declared a Superfund site."
But, in a biting retort, Carol Browner, who headed the EPA during the Clinton administration, suggested Trump could do some cleaning up in his own backyard.
"Trump's environmental record is such a toxic disaster it should be declared a Superfund site," Browner said.
Going point-by-point, Trump outlined a slew of other initiatives undertaken by his administration.
"Earlier this year, I also signed the Save our Seas Act, to protect our oceans from waste and pollution," Trump said. "This year I signed the largest public lands package in a decade, designating 1.3 million acres -- that's a lot of land -- of new wilderness and expanding recreational access. In December, I signed the historic executive order promoting much more active forest management to prevent catastrophic wildfires like those that recently devastated California and Oregon."
After applause, Trump noted that he visited California personally and observed that "you can't have dirty floors, you can't have 20 years of leaves and falling trees -- after the first 17 months, they say the tree is like a piece of tinder, you have to be very careful. That's why they have so many fires." The president also said "a lot of progress" has been made by federal and state officials working in the wake of the California earthquakes.
Trump was joined at the speech by Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the chairwoman of the administration's Council on Environmental Quality, Mary Neumayr.
Wheeler, speaking alongside Trump, said major air pollutants have dropped by more than 70 percent since the 1970s and emphasized that the administration has made unprecedented efforts to accelerate the cleanup of Superfund sites.
"In fiscal year 2018, we deleted the most sites from the national priorities list in one year since 2005," Wheeler said. "This year we are on track to delete even more, breaking that record."
Separately, Wheeler noted, "The lead and sulfur dioxide have dropped by double-digit percentages over the last two years. ... Today we have the cleanest air on record, and we are a global leader for access to clean drinking water."
Progressive activists said they were unimpressed after the speech. In an interview with Reuters, Ken Cook, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, derided Trump's speech as “utter fantasy."
“There has never been a president who has actively pursued an agenda so hostile to the environment and public health at the behest of polluters than Mr. Trump,” Cook said.
In part, the activists' concerns related to Trump administration rollbacks of existing environmental regulations. For example, last year, the Trump administration took some of the final steps to end an Obama-era policy that placed thousands of miles of waterways under federal regulation, clearing the way for new economic development. The Obama administration had categorized small streams and tributaries -- as well as creeks, washes, ditches and ponds that existed only during rains -- as "waters of the United States" subject to federal jurisdiction.
However, the Trump administration, which has long characterized that policy as an overreach that harmed economic development, restricted federal oversight primarily to major waterways and wetlands connected to other federally protected waterways.
Changes like those, Wheeler said, did not compromise environmental quality.
"America is, and will remain, the gold standard for environmental protection," Wheeler said Monday. "And, every American should know that our America is cleaner, safer, and stronger today, thanks to the leadership of President Trump."