As Trump praises EPA chief, Pruitt allies circle wagons

By Hannah Northey, George Cahlink | 04/06/2018 01:41 PM EDT

Allies of embattled U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said today his job is safe despite mounting ethics controversies.

U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s allies say he hasn’t hit a

U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s allies say he hasn’t hit a "tipping point" yet. Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Allies of embattled U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said today his job is safe despite mounting ethics controversies.

Conservative think tanks are ramping up campaigns to save the former Oklahoma attorney general and shrugging off the silence of Republican congressional leaders.

"There’s a crescendo right now because folks who don’t like him smell blood in the water," said Tom Pyle, president of the nonprofit Institute for Energy Research. He added that Pruitt hasn’t hit a "tipping point."


Despite departures from Pruitt’s inner circle at EPA and more than a dozen ethics controversies, outreach from the administrator’s backers — a circulating letter and calls to the White House and Capitol Hill — appear to be paying off. E&E News also obtained a list of talking points that is circulating that tout the administrator’s deregulatory accomplishments.

President Trump this morning tweeted that Pruitt is "doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege," while rejecting reports Pruitt is being considered to run the Department of Justice. Trump also told reporters following a roundtable in West Virginia yesterday that Pruitt is a "good guy."

But conservatives are leaving nothing to chance.

Myron Ebell, an ardent support of Pruitt and director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment, said he’s mobilizing his forces. While he welcomes Trump’s support, he acknowledged the president is unpredictable.

Trump famously tweeted his support for former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for example, before firing him on Twitter.

"It’s always hard to tell about tipping points until after you’ve tipped," said Ebell, who also led the Trump EPA transition team. "I don’t think Pruitt is out of danger, but I don’t think he’s started to be pushed over the edge, either. It’s still all up in the air."

When asked about the sparse Republican support for Pruitt on Capitol Hill, Ebell said that it was a matter of the congressional recess and that lawmakers may be voicing support in direct phone calls to the White House.

"I expect it’ll get a lot louder next week," he said.

Congressional Republicans have had little to say about Pruitt amid the string of disclosures swirling around him this week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have made no public statements on Pruitt.

Both leaders have over the past year worked closely with the EPA chief to push a series of rollbacks of Obama-era regulatory policies using the Congressional Review Act. They may be betting Pruitt’s controversies might have died down by the time Congress returns from a two-week break next week.

McConnell is hardly eager for another election-year confirmation fight with the Senate already needing to approve new picks to lead the State and Veterans Affairs departments and CIA in coming months. He also knows any potential EPA pick would almost certainly have to be less conservative than Pruitt to advance in the Senate, which only narrowly approved the former Oklahoma attorney general last year.

Pruitt in part is benefiting from Congress being on recess, a time when few lawmakers have been in Washington to weigh in on the ethics flap.

The only Republicans to call for Pruitt’s ouster so far are Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both moderates from the Miami area whose districts face rising sea levels. They would benefit politically from opposing Pruitt, who has been openly skeptical about climate science. Joining the group yesterday was Republican Elise Stefanik of New York.

The Senate, however, won’t be able to sidestep EPA personnel issues next week.

The chamber is set for a procedural vote on the nomination of Andrew Wheeler for deputy EPA administrator, the agency’s No. 2 position. Senators are certain to question whether Wheeler, a former Senate aide, would be qualified to step in if Pruitt steps down.

Democrats’ response

Today, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) became the highest-ranking lawmaker to call for Pruitt to resign. She accused him of promoting "corruption, cronyism and incompetence."

A liberal stalwart, Pelosi sought to tie to Pruitt to broader ethics issues facing Cabinet officials and painted GOP lawmakers as failing to stop it or speak out. It’s the latest sign that Democrats believe tying congressional Republicans to Trump could help them regain the majority in this fall’s midterm elections and suggests that the GOP may be unable to remain largely silent on Pruitt.

"Republicans in Congress need to end their complicity and finally take action to hold Pruitt and this administration accountable for their abuses," said Pelsoi, who added that the "health of our children" would continue to suffer if Pruitt remained in power and continued to advance an agenda that has given special interests "free rein … to pollute our communities."

While Pelosi and a number of Democrats are pouncing on Pruitt’s controversies to demand more information, the left has been somewhat muted in calling for a resignation.

Neither Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) nor top Energy and Commerce Democrat Frank Pallone of New Jersey, two frequent critics of Pruitt, have made similar requests.

Democrats likely see little to gain in partisan calls for him to resign with Pruitt drawing plenty of negative attention on his own with this week’s string of disclosures. Indeed, they may prefer a hobbled Pruitt at EPA than a new administrator who they might not be as able to easily target.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats have called for investigations into the latest ethics concerns by the EPA inspector general. They specifically raised concerns about Pruitt’s Washington housing and suggested EPA has offered conflicting information about his renting space in an apartment with ties to an energy lobbying firm.

"We have serious concerns that Mr. Pruitt may have misused his position as EPA administrator to improperly enrich himself," the letter sent yesterday said.

And yesterday, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, asked Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to hold a hearing next week with Pruitt and his top aides and to obtain documents relating to a host of serious new allegations against Pruitt and his advisers over the past week.

"Based on the events of the past week, it appears that the leadership at EPA is coming apart at the seams," Cummings wrote. "It is our responsibility on the Oversight Committee to conduct credible, robust oversight in a timely manner that protects the interests of the American taxpayers."

In the upper chamber, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Interior-EPA spending panel, announced yesterday he was filing a nonbinding sense of Congress resolution calling for Pruitt to resign. There, however, is no clear path for moving it to the floor in a GOP-controlled Senate.

Adding to the list is a letter Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Tom Carper, both members of the Environment and Public Works Committee, sent to EPA’s inspector general yesterday asking for an investigation of Pruitt’s alleged use of the Safe Drinking Water Act to grant aides large pay raises.

Pruitt denied knowing of the raises using the act during an interview on Fox News this week. Such an admission, the senators said, "could indicate a serious breakdown of internal controls on the appropriate use of this authority."

Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.