This GOP senator implied Scott Pruitt was on thin ice. He’s now back in the EPA chief’s corner.

Source: By Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post • Posted: Friday, June 22, 2018

Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma leaves the Senate chamber after the final vote confirming Scott Pruitt as EPA chief in February 2017. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) looked up from a set of talking points he’d been reading Wednesday morning about Scott Pruitt to explain the key reason he’d invited a group of reporters to his office.

“I’m a little embarrassed I was starting to doubt him in some areas where he shouldn’t have been doubted,” Inhofe said of the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, a longtime friend and fellow Oklahoman.

Inhofe — one of Pruitt’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill — had said only last week that he’d “had enough” of the seemingly endless allegations of ethical conduct dogging the EPA chief, including the most recent stories by The Washington Post that Pruitt had used his official position to help his wife obtain a job. “I think something needs to happen to change that, and one of those alternatives is for him to leave that job,” he told conservative talk radio show host Laura Ingraham at the time.

“I was becoming skeptical. I was getting concerned,” he told the reporters in his office.

But a face-to-face meeting with Pruitt on Tuesday evening assuaged his doubts. By Wednesday morning, Inhofe had adopted Pruitt’s approach of blaming his ethics quandaries on disgruntled former employees, a bloated government bureaucracy, unfair media coverage and political opponents such as liberal activist Tom Steyer and “left-wing environmentalists” who oppose Trump administration policies.

Having Inhofe stand up for him publicly offers Pruitt an important boost, given his waning support within conservative circles. Still, whether the administrator keeps his Cabinet-level post depends on the continued backing of President Trump. Even Inhofe wouldn’t venture a guess about whether Pruitt’s job is safe.

“I don’t have any idea if it is or not,” he said. “We don’t have the most predictable president in the history of America.”

One by one, Inhofe addressed a half-dozen of the spending and ethics allegations Pruitt faces, reading from the talking points about why he now felt each was unfounded or overblown.

On the more than $3 million that taxpayers have paid for Pruitt’s round-the-clock security detail: “The difference is his predecessors never had any threats against them. None of them.” (That isn’t true, though officials say Pruitt has faced more threats than previous administrators.)

On the hundreds of thousands of dollars taxpayers have paid for Pruitt’s first-class domestic and foreign travel: “Travel costs were in line with all the past administrators,” Inhofe said. (Pruitt’s travel spending has far outpaced that of his predecessors.)

On scrutiny of the $43,000 secure phone booth installed in Pruitt’s office: “The government bureaucracy, being what it is, should have made a lot better deal than they made.”

Inhofe declined to address all of the allegations that have led to a flurry of federal inquiries into Pruitt’s behavior and management decisions. For instance, asked specifically whether he was concerned about reports that Pruitt used his position and subordinates’ time to help his wife obtain employment, Inhofe referred reporters to Pruitt’s outside attorney, Cleta Mitchell.

Mitchell, who has helped set up a legal expense fund for the administrator, said in an interview last week that she had helped his wife find a job, as she had done with “other people moving to Washington from my home state.”

She said she told Pruitt that the couple just had to adhere to basic ethics guidelines on any position Marlyn Pruitt might accept and that he did not need to consult with EPA ethics attorneys, which Mitchell believes “would have been an inappropriate use of government resources.”

“I said, ‘There are certain things we have to be mindful of. We need to steer clear of anything that has to do with EPA, and she needs to be compensated fairly for real work,’” the lawyer recalled. “I said, ‘As long as you follow these guidelines, you’ll be fine. She’ll be fine.’”

Overall, Inhofe said, he was satisfied with Pruitt’s explanations, though he acknowledged that the EPA chief had made missteps as he found his footing in Washington. “I think there are probably times when he displayed questionable judgment, or I’m a little more cautious than he is,” the lawmaker said. “I have to say this about him, though. He sure didn’t know anything about Washington when he got here. . . . He’s had a wake-up call.”

The senator also took aim at the media, saying outlets have often written about the allegations without bothering to include Pruitt’s side of the story. (EPA often declines to comment, and The Post, which always seeks a response, includes any explanation the agency provides.)

Inhofe is not the only Republican in Congress to question Pruitt’s leadership, though Sens. Charles E. Grassley and Joni Ernst, both Iowa Republicans, have largely focused on his approach to ethanol policy. Ernst said Wednesday at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing that Pruitt had engaged in “unacceptable uses of taxpayer dollars.” Days earlier, Grassley remarked at a Senate Agriculture Committee session, “Pruitt is ill-serving the president.”

The American Future Fund, a conservative nonprofit group based in Iowa, launched a 30-second ad last week calling for Pruitt’s resignation, describing him as a “swamp monster” who is “embarrassing President Trump.” Ingraham also tweeted last week that Pruitt needed to go because his poor decisions were “hurting” Trump.

And an editorial in the conservative National Review argued that Pruitt “is replaceable. And he should be replaced.”

As the various inquiries into his decision-making continue, Pruitt is scheduled to testify in August before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

“The hearing will give senators the opportunity to ask important questions and hear about the work being done at the agency,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the committee’s chairman, said in announcing the hearing this week.