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President Trump touts environmental record as critics pan speech

President Donald Trump speaks about his environmental policy

President Donald Trump speaks about his environmental policy Monday in the White House East Room. Credit: AP/Alex Brandon

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump in a Monday address touted his administration’s environmental record, and cast himself as a champion of clean air and clean waterways in a speech that was widely panned by environmentalists.

Trump has often described climate change as a “hoax” and has rolled back dozens of environmental protection regulations since taking office. He delivered a nearly hourlong address from the White House in which he defended his administration's push for deregulation, and his decision to withdraw from the multinational Paris Climate Accord, arguing that restrictive codes were hampering U.S. businesses.

“A strong economy is vital to maintaining a healthy environment,” Trump said. “Punishing Americans is never the right way to produce a better environment or a better economy. We have rejected this failed approach and we are seeing great results.”

The speech — not tied to a new policy rollout — came as national polls show increasing numbers of Democratic voters count the environment as a top 2020 issue. But a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday showed that Trump’s lowest-ranking policy issue among poll respondents was his response to climate change — 29 percent of the 1,008 voters polled said they approved of Trump’s response.

Speaking before a small crowd of supporters and administration officials, including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Trump said his administration “has made it a top priority to ensure that America...[has]...the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet.”

“We want the cleanest air. We want crystal-clean water, and that's what we're doing,” Trump said.

Trump’s claims that the United States had the cleanest air quality came as the federal government’s own data showed otherwise. An EPA report on air quality released last year showed an uptick in cases of “unhealthy days for ozone and fine particle pollution” across 35 major U.S. cities, from a low of 599 cases in 2014, to 729 days in 2017, the first year Trump took office.

The United States has also dropped in rankings in the global Environmental Performance Index, which analyzes air and water quality in 180 countries. In 2018, the U.S. was ranked 27th, slipping one spot from its ranking in 2016, during the last year of the Obama administration.

Trump also took aim at the “Green New Deal” proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) that has been embraced by environmental groups and left-of-center Democrats.

The proposal calls for the federal government to invest in clean-energy jobs and to reduce the U.S. consumption of fossil fuels. Trump blasted the plan, claiming it would “kill millions of jobs.”

“We will defend the environment, but we will also defend American sovereignty, American prosperity, and we will defend American jobs,” Trump said.

Markey, in a tweet, called Trump’s cabinet “his Oil and Coal All-Star Cabinet” referring to Wheeler’s former work as a coal industry lobbyist and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s former work lobbying on behalf of the oil industry. Markey said Trump was in charge of “the most anti-climate administration in history.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a Senate floor speech, also blasted Trump’s decision to appoint oil and coal industry lobbyists to lead the nation’s environmental agencies.

“Today, amazingly enough, President Trump tried to claim credit as a leader on environmental protection, of all things,” Schumer said. “This is laughable. The same president who pulled us out of the Paris agreement, who has filled his administration with oil and coal cronies, who has slashed protections for clean air, clean water and protections for public lands, and who has denied basic science now wants to call himself a leader on the environment? Give me a break.”

Environmental groups also pushed back on the president’s speech, criticizing him for not mentioning climate change in his speech.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement: “No amount of speeches, lies, or stunts will ever change the fact that Donald Trump has the worst record on the environment and climate of any president in American history.”

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