Republicans lose patience with Scott Pruitt, but Trump doesn’t

Source: By Josh Siegel, Washington Examiner • Posted: Monday, June 11, 2018

Republican lawmakers are becoming more frustrated with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s stewardship of taxpayer dollars and potential abuse of his office.

“Administrator Pruitt’s unforced errors are increasingly distracting from the otherwise great work the EPA is doing under his leadership,” Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who leads the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee overseeing the EPA, told the Washington Examiner Thursday.

But few Republicans are willing to buck President Trump, whose support has not flagged, and call for Pruitt’s resignation. Some of that reticence is practical. They expect a difficult nomination fight for any replacement.

“Senate Democrats’ historic obstruction of President Trump’s nominees is probably another reason Mr. Pruitt remains where he is,” Shimkus said.

After a week of more revelations of Pruitt’s peculiar decisions, such as using an agency aide to obtain a mattress for him from the Trump International Hotel and having his security detail pick up body lotion, some allies are accusing the media of picking on the EPA head to derail his deregulatory agenda.

“Scott Pruitt is a prime example of what Teddy Roosevelt described as the ‘man in the arena.’ He is a target because he is keeping President Trump’s campaign promises to rein in the EPA,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., told the Washington Examiner Thursday. “I have confidence in him because he has been highly effective. The criticisms against him amount to nothing more than nitpicking.”

Pruitt faces serious new allegations, and he is already facing more than a dozen federal investigations.

The roster of issues under investigation include Pruitt’s $50-per-night condo rental deal with the wife of an energy lobbyist who had business before the EPA, his spending of more than $3.5 million on security, his $43,000 secure phone booth, frequent first-class travel, and allegations that he retaliated against employees who questioned his judgment.

On Wednesday, House appropriators included a rider in a $35 billion spending bill that blocks Pruitt from spending more than $50 on a pen, in response to recent reports that he spent more than $1,500 on pens.

Democrats on Thursday, including Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, asked the EPA’s inspector general to open a new probe into “recent revelations that the administrator appears to have used his office to benefit himself and his family in business matters unrelated to federal government work.”

Pruitt had his executive scheduler email the president of Chick-fil-A to arrange a meeting to discuss a “potential franchise opportunity” for his wife, the Washington Post reported this week.

He tasked members of his round-the-clock security detail to run errands for him, including picking up his dry cleaning and helping him obtain moisturizing lotion, according to a report Thursday.

Federal rules say public officials cannot receive gifts from subordinates, including unpaid services. The rules also prevent them from using their office for private gain.

Meanwhile, two top aides to Pruitt — Sarah Greenwalt, Pruitt’s senior counsel, and Millan Hupp, his director of scheduling — both of whom worked for him in his last position as Oklahoma’s attorney general, resigned this week. Hupp gave her resignation after telling a congressional committee that she was asked by Pruitt to obtain a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

Greenwalt and Hupp are among the EPA staffers who have interviewed with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as part of its probe over Pruitt’s spending and ethics.

Their resignations are the latest departures of top aides close to Pruitt, who has blamed political aides and career staffers for many of his troubles.

Tom Pyle, president of the free-market American Energy Alliance and Trump’s former Energy Department transition team leader, said the departures of staffers closely associated with Pruitt can help his status.

“None of the latest developments alter my view that Scott Pruitt should remain at the helm of the EPA,” Pyle told the Washington Examiner. “Staff turnover was inevitable, especially in this feeding frenzy atmosphere, but I do think it would be to Pruitt’s benefit to surround himself with a new team that doesn’t have the close personal history he shared with his outgoing staff.”

Mike McKenna, a conservative environmental adviser with close ties to the Trump transition team, also advised Pruitt to shake up his staff with more experienced people.

“I’ve always thought that the staff changes were going to happen,” McKenna told the Washington Examiner. “The administrator would be well-served to take this opportunity to bring on some new hands with substantial Washington experience.”

Republicans who oppose some of Pruitt’s policy moves are more willing to question Pruitt’s job status.

Pruitt “is about as swampy as you get here in Washington, D.C. And if the president wants to drain the swamp, he needs to take a look at his own Cabinet,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said Tuesday at a public event.

Ernst is frustrated with Pruitt’s efforts to help oil refiners avoid costs from the Renewable Fuel Standard, to the detriment of corn farmers in her state.

But Republicans who share Pruitt’s verve for weakening or delaying environmental rules are focusing their attention on policy.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, credited Pruitt Thursday for proposing a rule that would change the way the agency calculates the costs and benefits of regulations.

“Administrator Pruitt is working hard to implement President Trump’s America First agenda,” Smith told the Washington Examiner. “He is righting the previous administration’s wrongs of consistently overstating regulatory benefits while ignoring regulatory burdens and costs. Americans can thank Administrator Pruitt for making the federal government more honest and more responsive.

Other Republicans operate more cautiously, expressing patience in waiting for the results of various investigations, including from the White House.

“I continue to have significant concerns, continue to be involved in oversight,” Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, told reporters this week. “We’re waiting for reports from the inspector general and of course the White House and the president — they’re doing a formal review. There has to be accountability for public money and how money is spent and we’ll continue to be very engaged in this.”

Despite the ongoing investigations, Trump has signaled he’s made his own conclusion.

“EPA is doing really, really well,” Trump said at a Cabinet meeting Wednesday at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Somebody has to say that. You know that, Scott.”

And the president’s view, until something changes, may be all that matters.

“The president’s judgment is the only one that is material in this instance,” McKenna said. “The increasingly petty nature of the reporting only serves to highlight that the media doesn’t like him. Which means he must be doing something right.”

John Siciliano contributed to this report.