For Scott Pruitt, a Spotlight Shines on His Ethics, Not His E.P.A. Rollbacks

Source: By Coral Davenport, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Scott Pruitt, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced his regulatory rollback on Tuesday in Washington.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — It should have been Scott Pruitt’s finest moment.

Mr. Pruitt, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, has sought to make his name as the Trump administration’s most effective eraser of regulations on American industry. On Tuesday, he formally announced his most sweeping regulatory rollback to date: a plan to weaken President Barack Obama’s stringent rules on planet-warming tailpipe emissions.

Mr. Pruitt’s proposal is designed to unravel a signature piece of Mr. Obama’s environmental legacy, hand a victory to the American automakers and please his boss, President Trump. But instead of basking in glory, Mr. Pruitt is caught up in a swirl of allegations of impropriety — most recently centered on the fact that last year he rented a room in Washington from the wife of a prominent lobbyist.

Mr. Pruitt unveiled his rollback in a hastily announced presentation at E.P.A. headquarters after canceling a plan to speak at a suburban Virginia auto dealership, a more public setting that might have exposed him to questions about the lease arrangement, or about his first-class air travel at taxpayer expense over the past year, for which he has also faced criticism. Mr. Pruitt declined to field questions at the event.

Late Monday, Mr. Trump phoned Mr. Pruitt to reassure him that his job was safe. “Keep your head up, keep fighting, we got your back,” Mr. Trump told Mr. Pruitt, according to an administration official. Then on Tuesday morning, John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, called Mr. Pruitt to reaffirm the president’s sentiment, the official said.

Despite the president’s encouraging language in the call, the depth of Mr. Trump’s support can be difficult to gauge. He dislikes direct confrontation and has been known to pivot from chummy chatter with an associate, in private, to an abrupt firing.

That was the case last week with David J. Shulkin, the secretary of veterans affairs, who was fired by Mr. Kelly just hours after having what Mr. Shulkin described as a low-key phone conversation with the president about the progress he was making at the department, during which Mr. Trump said nothing of his impending ouster.

On Tuesday morning, Senate Democrats sent a letter to the E.P.A.’s inspector general asking him to open an investigation into Mr. Pruitt’s housing arrangements in 2017.

Mr. Pruitt came under fire last week after reports about his rental last year of a Washington residence partly owned by the wife of a top energy lobbyist whose firm, according to disclosure forms, conducted business before the E.P.A. that same year. Under terms of the lease, he paid $50 a night to stay in a condominium in the pricey Capitol Hill neighborhood.

An E.P.A. spokesman on Tuesday said the lease arrangement was consistent with federal ethics regulations.

Mr. Pruitt earlier this year was reprimanded by the White House after documents emerged showing that he had spent more than $107,000 in public money on first-class air travel.

A Republican member of Congress took the unusual step of calling for Mr. Pruitt’s removal on Tuesday. Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida wrote on Twitter, “Major policy differences aside, @EPAScottPruitt’s corruption scandals are an embarrassment to the Administration, and his conduct is grossly disrespectful to American taxpayers. It’s time for him to resign or for @POTUS to dismiss him.”

Mr. Curbelo is a co-chairman of the House Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group that has called for efforts to address global warming.

Mr. Trump on Tuesday afternoon made a brief comment when asked about Mr. Pruitt in the Cabinet Room, after The Atlantic magazine reported that Mr. Pruitt gave raises to two aides even though the White House had declined to approve the raises. “I hope he’s going to be great,” Mr. Trump said of the E.P.A. administrator.

The E.P.A. spokesman said that Mr. Pruitt had not been aware that the personnel actions had not been submitted to the Presidential Personnel Office and had directed them to be submitted for review. The spokesman, Jahan Wilcox, also said that the agency had “clear authority” to make staff appointments.

Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor who himself has come under fire for ethics issues, including his handling of a bridge lane-closing scandal, said on Sunday that Mr. Pruitt’s actions were likely to cost him his job. “The president’s been ill served by this,” Mr. Christie said on ABC’s “This Week.” When asked if Mr. Pruitt should resign, he replied, “I don’t know how you survive this one.”

Mr. Trump has sought to build a legacy of rolling back regulations on American industry, and Mr. Pruitt has proved to be one of his most effective lieutenants. In his first year on the job, Mr. Pruitt initiated the rollbacks of more than two dozen major environmental rules.

The proposed rollback on vehicle mileage and emissions standards that he announced Tuesday is arguably the largest of those. Last year, soon after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, the nation’s biggest automakers asked the president to loosen an Obama-era rule that would have forced automakers to build cars that achieve an average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, nearly doubling their mileage while also reducing a major source of greenhouse gas pollution.

At Mr. Trump’s request, Mr. Pruitt declared the auto regulation too onerous on industry and filed a legal document to reconsider it with the expectation of filing a new, weaker rule later this year.

Initially, Mr. Pruitt’s announcement was to take place Tuesday at a Chevrolet dealership in Chantilly, Va., owned by Geoffrey Pohanka, who has spoken out against climate science and against tougher automotive standards. But while Mr. Pohanka was eager to offer his dealership as a stage for the announcement, other Chevrolet dealers were uneasy about seeing the Chevy brand used as a backdrop to Mr. Pruitt’s announcement, according to two dealers who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing their relationship with the automaker.

Late Monday, the dealership said the event had been canceled. Instead, the Tuesday morning event was held at the E.P.A. headquarters, attended by a handful of auto industry lobbyists. The E.P.A. invited only a small handful of reporters to attend.

“This is another step in the president’s deregulatory agenda,” Mr. Pruitt said, standing next to a row of signs that said “jobs” and “certainty.” “We are going to make sure that consumers across this country are not put in a position where they’re having to buy more expensive cars, cars that don’t really truly want to be purchased.”

Afterward, when asked about the ethics questions facing his tenure, Mr. Pruitt turned and left the room, flanked by members of his security detail.

Some Republicans believe the E.P.A. chief’s efforts to roll back regulations will keep him in Mr. Trump’s good graces. “So far, his reforms are estimated to save taxpayers over $1 billion in deregulatory savings,” Senator James M. Inhofe, Mr. Pruitt’s fellow Oklahoma Republican, a senior member of the Senate environment committee and a longtime supporter of Mr. Pruitt’s, wrote in a statement. “He’s been an effective member of the president’s team and I look forward to continuing to work with him to restore the E.P.A. to its proper size and scope,” Mr. Inhofe wrote.

Conservative supporters said they believed it would take more than the apartment and travel scrutiny to bring down Mr. Pruitt. Myron Ebell, who led the Trump administration’s E.P.A. transition team, said he thought that as long as Mr. Pruitt pursued Mr. Trump’s agenda his job would be safe.

Mr. Trump is “giving us a number of surprises, and one surprise could be that he stands by Pruitt,” Mr. Ebell said.

Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Lisa Friedman contributed reporting from Washington, and Hiroko Tabuchi from New York.

Coral Davenport covers energy and environmental policy, with a focus on climate change, from the Washington bureau. She joined The Times in 2013 and previously worked at Congressional Quarterly, Politico and National Journal. @CoralMDavenportFacebook

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