By Andrew Restuccia, Cristiano Lima and Nancy Cook
April 4, 2018 - President Donald Trump and his chief of staff may be telling Scott Pruitt they have his back, but other White House officials are making it clear that the Environmental Protection Agency chief's future in the administration is still very much in doubt.
Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt
It was a familiar mixed message for anyone following the daily soap opera in the White House, where even public expressions of confidence in an embattled official can’t guarantee the person won’t be fired in a matter of days — or hours. It's even true for an agency head like Pruitt, who took another huge step Tuesday toward fulfilling Trump’s pledge to dismantle former President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations.
“The notion of calls backing him up, etc., is good PR for a very frustrating situation,” said one person close to the White House, in comments about reports that Trump and chief of staff John Kelly had reassured Pruitt in separate phone calls over the previous 24 hours.
White House officials and people close to the president said Trump himself has been annoyed by the constant drumbeat of negative headlines pertaining to Pruitt, from his lavish first-class travel to his decision to the $50-a-night lodging he secured for several months last year in a lobbyist’s Capitol Hill condo.
Trump offered muted support for Pruitt on Tuesday. “I hope he's going to be great," the president told reporters.
Meanwhile, Pruitt’s longtime allies in the oil, gas and coal industries were largely silent Tuesday, with few offering public pleas for Trump to keep him. And Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo became the first Republican in Congress to call for Pruitt to resign or be fired, tweeting that his “corruption scandals are an embarrassment to the administration, and his conduct is grossly disrespectful to American taxpayers.”
Fellow Florida GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen soon followed, tweeting that “distractions and scandals have overtaken” Pruitt’s “ability to operate effectively. Another person should fill that role.”
Pruitt has largely stayed out of sight but broke his silence in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Examiner, in which he described the condo controversy as an example of the Beltway's "toxic" atmosphere and the desperate tactics of opponents of Trump's agenda.
“There are people that have long in this town done business a different way and this agency has been the poster child of it," Pruitt said. "And so do I think that because we are leading on this agenda that there are some who want to keep that from happening? Absolutely. And do I think that they will resort to anything to achieve that? Yes.”
Earlier Tuesday, Pruitt skipped an appearance at a Northern Virginia car dealership where he had been expected to roll out his decision to block the Obama administration’s tightening of fuel efficiency rules. Instead, he discussed the action during a webcast from EPA headquarters, and used the occasion to lavish praise on Trump.
“This president has shown tremendous courage to say to the American people that America is going to be put first,” Pruitt said in the webcast.
Trump’s verdict on Pruitt apparently is yet to be decided, officials said, noting that at least two things could work in his favor: First, Trump’s conservative allies believe Pruitt is one of the most effective Cabinet members in implementing the president’s agenda. Second, firing Pruitt would set up yet another contentious confirmation battle in the Senate, following possible fights over Trump’s nominees for CIA director and secretary of state and his attempt to put his White House physician in charge of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That is also a concern for energy industry lobbyists watching the news maelstrom surrounding Pruitt — with one saying that even those who like his handling of the EPA worry about “what else is going to come?”
“It keeps piling up here," the lobbyist said. "The backstop is that lack of anyone who can replace him at this point. Who would they put up there?”
Still, Pruitt has few defenders in the White House, where senior aides have largely stopped pushing back aggressively on negative stories about the EPA chief. Aides viewed that as a bad sign for Pruitt’s prospects, noting that the White House similarly stopped coming to the defense of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin in the days before Trump fired him last week.
Pruitt’s reputation as a ladder climber with big ambitions has repeatedly gotten under the skin of many in the White House. Several aides mentioned the news that Pruitt was interested in replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions as an example of Pruitt, in the words of one official, “flying too close to the sun.” People close to Trump say the president disdains staff who are seen to be hogging the spotlight.
But White House aides acknowledged that they simply don’t know what Trump will ultimately decide. Like so many senior officials before him whose status with Trump was the subject of weeks of speculation, Pruitt could be ousted in an instant or left to dangle for months.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Trump spoke with Pruitt on Monday night and Kelly talked to him Tuesday morning.
POLITICO reported Monday that Kelly has discussed the possibility of recommending that Trump fire Pruitt. But other White House officials cautioned that no decisions had been made.
Pruitt is perceived as “high maintenance” by staffers throughout the National Economic Council, communications shop and Cabinet Affairs, said one Republican close to the White House — someone who has butted heads with, annoyed and exasperated people on several occasions.
NEC officials were irked by the large role Pruitt played in deciding the fate of the Paris climate agreement — a fight he won by encouraging Trump to withdraw from the pact. Pruitt has also been eager to make huge announcements and publicize even minor moves out of the EPA, even if doing so at such an early stage could hurt the administration’s position when the issue gets challenged in court.
“Were he not one of the president’s favorite Cabinet members and viewed as loyal and effective, he would be gone already,” the Republican added. “If the president starts to get shaky on him, things could move fast.”
Questions about Pruitt's status in the administration come amid a fresh round of negative headlines that threaten to deepen the ethics scandals around him.
According to a report published Tuesday by The Atlantic, Pruitt moved forward with substantial salary increases for two of his top aides despite the White House dismissing a request for the raises. Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, two of Pruitt's closest associates who migrated with him from Oklahoma to Washington, saw their salaries tick up from $107,435 to $164,200 and $86,460 to $114,590, respectively, after Pruitt used an agency loophole to raise their pay — after the White House denied the request.
Aides to the EPA administrator, whose costly travel habits have surfaced in a series of damaging reports, also considered leasing a private jet on a month-to-month basis, according to a Tuesday Washington Post report. The agency ultimately opted against the move, which officials estimated would have cost the agency roughly $100,000 a month.
According to records provided to the House Oversight Committee and obtained by POLITICO last month, Pruitt's propensity for expensive travel resulted in a bill of more than $105,000 spent on first-class flights in his first year on the job. An additional $58,000 went to charter flights and a military jet used to transport him from an event with Trump to catch a connecting flight in New York.
EPA’s inspector general is investigating Pruitt’s 2017 travels, and a senior administration official has said White House aides expect its conclusions to be damning.
Pruitt's proximity to lobbyists has also drawn negative attention, including the EPA chief’s decision to rent a Capitol Hill condo for $50-a-night from the wife of an energy lobbyist for several months last year. The New York Times noted that the rental occurred during the same period that Pruitt's agency approved a pipeline-expansion permit for a Canadian energy company represented by the lobbyist’s firm, Williams & Jensen. Pruitt and the lobbying firm have denied any connection between the EPA's decision and the condo rental, but the move has nonetheless drawn scrutiny from ethics experts.
The town house reportedly was also used by at least three Republican lawmakers for fundraisers, the Daily Beast reported Monday.
The EPA chief is the latest Trump administration official to become the subject of speculation about a potential departure amid a recent string of high-profile exits by senior White House officials.
After months of speculation, Trump announced on Twitter last week he would replace Shulkin as secretary of Veterans Affairs, a move that came amid intensifying reports the president would shelve the agency chief. H.R. McMaster, Trump's former national security adviser, was also dismissed last month following reports he clashed with the president on foreign policy matters.
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