Conservatives are supporting U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt as he struggles with reports of premium travel, high-price security and ties to lobbyists.
Myron Ebell, who led President Trump's EPA transition team, told E&E News that Pruitt has been consequential in achieving the president's goals. Pruitt has proposed repealing several Obama-era regulations, winning plaudits from free-market and business groups that have long battled with EPA.
"We're getting the word out that Administrator Pruitt is doing a good job in implementing the president's agenda and Administrator Pruitt is a key part of that agenda," Ebell said. "We're trying to keep the free-market groups and the conservative groups together in support of the agenda."
Ebell, director of the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Center for Energy and Environment, talked to E&E News on his way to EPA headquarters today to attend Pruitt's announcement of the rollback of Obama-era auto fuel efficiency standards. Ebell declined to speculate whether Pruitt's job is in jeopardy.
"We're policy-oriented, and he is, too, but has to deal with these little messes as best as he can do," Ebell said. "I think he has the confidence of the White House and the president for the good job he is doing, but on these personal issues, I have no idea."
EPA has been contending with reports of Pruitt living part of last year in a Capitol Hill condo tied to a lobbyist whose firm's clients have business before the agency (Greenwire, April 2). Pruitt also considered leasing a private jet on a monthly basis, The Washington Post reported.
Pruitt has caught his boss's attention. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that the White House is conducting a review of Pruitt's lease and whether he paid market-value rent.
A White House official told E&E News that President Trump called Pruitt last night and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly called the EPA chief this morning, but the official declined to share details of those discussions. Media reports indicate that Trump and Kelly expressed support for Pruitt and told him to keep fighting.
This morning, reporters asked Trump about Pruitt, and the president replied, "I hope he's going to be great," according to a pool report.
Pruitt in turn praised Trump today while announcing the agency's fuel efficiency plans (see related story).
Trump "made a commitment to the people of Detroit, and he made a commitment to the people of this country," Pruitt said. "The president is again saying, 'America is going to be put first.' ... We have nothing to be apologetic about."
The EPA inspector general is conducting audits of Pruitt's travel, which included the use of first-class and charter flights, and agency spending on his personal security detail, which has spiked compared with past administrators due to an around-the-clock presence by guards.
EPA IG spokesman Jeff Lagda said the watchdog office estimates it will release both those audits by this summer.
The Atlantic also reported today that Pruitt gave pay raises to two political aides against White House wishes, using a unique hiring authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Pruitt's use of "administratively determined" positions is also under IG review.
Despite those issues, industry sources said Pruitt — one of the most effective members of Trump's Cabinet — is staying put.
"The president likes him," said one industry lawyer and lobbyist. "The question is, is he bringing home the bacon for the administration? I think the answer is yes."
The White House's ultimate measure of Cabinet officials is their ability to stay on task and produce results consistent with Trump's overarching objectives, said the energy attorney and lobbyist. Trump often notes that Pruitt's regulatory rollback is a crowd pleaser — sometimes more so than tax reform — making him one of the most successful Cabinet members, said the source.
Tom Pyle, president of the conservative nonprofit Institute for Energy Research, said it would be a mistake for the White House to remove Pruitt and leave the agency without a leader as it evaluates a slew of major regulations, including the Clean Power Plan, the Clean Water Rule and auto efficiency standards. Pyle also hinted at tough sledding in the Senate for any new pick to lead EPA.
"Any new nominee with a hope of getting confirmed would have to be more like [former EPA Administrator] Christine Todd Whitman than Scott Pruitt," Pyle said.
Sources acknowledged that talk of Pruitt's replacement has churned for months but said those discussions have centered on his political aspirations — not Trump's displeasure.
If Pruitt were to leave, possible contenders to lead the agency include air chief Bill Wehrum and Andrew Wheeler, whom Trump nominated to be EPA deputy administrator. One industry attorney also pointed to Jeff Holmstead, a former EPA air chief under President George W. Bush who is now at Bracewell LLP.
There is a leadership change already underway; acting Deputy Administrator Mike Flynn is retiring from the agency today. It's not clear who will be the next No. 2 at EPA, as the agency is waiting on the Senate to confirm Wheeler (see related story).
Meanwhile, Democrats are seeking to keep the pressure on Pruitt. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) as well as Reps. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) each sent letters today to the EPA IG calling for an investigation into Pruitt's lease for the lobbyist-linked condo.
Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today cited Pruitt's travel expenses and requested a hearing into whether the Trump administration has "adequate controls in place to protect taxpayer money when it comes to the travel of members of this administration."
The letter, sent by Oversight ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), notes that many federal agencies and the White House have refused to provide information sought by the committee in an investigation into improper air travel by the Trump administration.
"The extensive use of noncommercial aircraft by multiple members of the Trump administration is disrespectful to the American taxpayers who foot the bill for these expenses," the pair wrote to Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
Also, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter yesterday to Pruitt raising questions about his condo lease, saying his low-value rent could be a prohibited gift from a lobbyist.
Ebell said he doesn’t know what the future holds for Pruitt. He has been surprised by President Trump's personnel moves in the past, including the abrupt firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
"Look at some of the surprises," Ebell said. "Maybe he [Pruitt] will get a promotion."
Reporters Maxine Joselow and Geof Koss contributed.
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