Back in March, just weeks into his tenure as U.S. EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt went on CNBC’s "Squawk Box" program and said that human activity was not "a primary contributor to the global warming that we see."
It sparked weeks of blowback. Critics were stunned that the man tasked with policing the nation’s environment would reject basic climate science. Pruitt’s comments yielded a series of negative headlines, Democrats sent him educational materials on climate change, and EPA’s own scientific integrity watchdog is now reviewing his comments.
Since then, Pruitt has shifted his media appearances to friendlier venues.
He has gone on Fox News or its affiliates at least six times since April 1. He appeared recently on the radio show of conservative columnist Hugh Hewitt and even the local morning talk radio show of a North Dakota blogger who described the Obama administration’s EPA as an enemy to the well-being of his state. This week, Pruitt was interviewed by the media arm of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that has had significant sway over Trump administration policy.
Pruitt’s recent interviews have largely allowed him to tee off on a favorite series of talking points: Obama’s energy policy was "America second," energy industry innovations have reduced the U.S. carbon footprint, the so-called war on coal is now over, EPA’s job is to encourage business growth in concert with the environment, and the era of punitive action against energy companies is over.
On Hewitt’s show last week, the host expressed concerns for Pruitt’s feelings.
"You’re no stranger to partisan attacks, but the hyperpartisan coverage of EPA, everything you do, has, I don’t know, is it wearying?" Hewitt asked. "Or are you just smiling and laughing it off?"
Pruitt responded to the question by criticizing the "toxicity" of the Obama administration’s politicization of environmental policies and said the Trump administration would focus on restoring common sense and economic balance.
On Fox, Pruitt has even expressed appreciation for the questions he gets. In April, Fox Business Network host Trish Regan sympathetically noted that Pruitt might be criticized for fulfilling Trump’s promises.
"I can’t imagine you’re so popular among some of the rank and file right now at the EPA. … You’re talking about a real organizational shift, a shift in the mindset. How is that being received?" she asked.
"Well, it’s needed, and I’ll tell you, I really like the way you put it," Pruitt said. "The president is keeping his promises, because when you look at the last eight years, Washington has become so consequential in the lives of farmers and ranchers, those that do oil and gas, those that are building subdivisions across the country."
An EPA spokesman declined to comment for this story or to provide a full list of outlets on which Pruitt has appeared.
To be sure, all administrations seek out friendly press. President Obama talked about health care on the "Between Two Ferns" comedy program with Zach Galifianakis, which Republicans criticized as undignified. And former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy granted exclusive interviews to left-leaning outlets like Mother Jones and Grist.
But critics say Pruitt’s courting of conservative media is on an entirely different level.
In another "Fox & Friends" interview in April, for example, the hosts encouraged Pruitt to take aim at environmentalists who say a wall with Mexico could harm some species.
They joked that jaguars, which were "allegedly on the border," would be harmed. Pruitt smiled and assured them that such "frivolous" challenges would be ignored so that the wall could be built.
The North American jaguar is so close to extinction that scientists say only two males have recently been found in the United States, while females are located in Mexico.
"We all do care about the environment, and we’ll be safe, you’ll make sure of that," co-host Ainsley Earhardt assured viewers. The chyron at the bottom of the screen read "A ‘Wild’ Excuse: Environmentalists claim it would harm jaguars."
Liz Purchia, a former EPA spokeswoman under the Obama administration, said it’s extremely unusual to place an administrator only on partisan outlets. She noted that McCarthy regularly interacted with reporters from outlets that produced coverage EPA officials did not appreciate. But, Purchia said, the Obama EPA intentionally tried to avoid granting exclusive interviews to outlets connected to think tanks that influenced administration policy because the optics did not look good.
"Only talking to far right-wing media outlets, they are only talking to a small group of Americans that regularly follow them, and they are intentionally going to reporters who will only ask them questions they want to hear and aren’t speaking to the broader American people about their actions," Purchia said.
Conservatives, though, described Pruitt’s strategy as a good warmup for an expanded media presence.
Myron Ebell, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who headed Trump’s EPA transition team, noted that the former Oklahoma attorney general understands the legal issues facing EPA better than anyone, particularly in the many areas where he has sued the agency. But, he said, there are gaps in Pruitt’s knowledge, including on contentious issues like climate science that will easily be seized upon by critics.
Ebell argued that Pruitt needs to be better briefed on those issues by his staff, particularly if he is going to appear on mainstream outlets where the questioning may be tougher. He said Pruitt does need to maintain connections to conservative audiences and conservative think tanks, but he also needs to reach a broader audience.
"I think he is reaching out to the conservative movement, and I think he needs to do that, but at some time, he’s going to have to be on a bigger, less friendly stage," Ebell said. "He’s very up to speed on a lot of things, but there are some things that will be exploited in general media appearances he needs to get up to speed on."
Pruitt’s next two scheduled media interviews, both on Fox, are scheduled to happen this morning. He’ll appear on "Fox & Friends" on the Fox News Channel as well as "Varney & Co." on the Fox Business Network.