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Analysis: Scott Pruitt's growing troubles

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaks during an infrastructure initiative meeting with President Donald Trump at the State Dining Room of the White House on Feb. 12, 2018. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick
Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaks during an infrastructure initiative meeting with President Donald Trump at the State Dining Room of the White House on Feb. 12, 2018. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by T.J. Kirkpatrick

WASHINGTON — If you’ve seen the headlines lately about Scott Pruitt, who leads the Environmental Protection Agency, you know he is in some sort of trouble.

But is it over taking first-class flights? Or about living in a discount housing rental linked to a lobbyist? Or about giving raises to favored aides behind the White House’s back?

Actually, it’s all of the above. Let us explain the hot waters in which President Donald Trump’s top environmental enforcer finds himself.

— When did Pruitt become controversial?

Among environmentalists, conservationists and most elected Democrats in Washington, Pruitt was contentious from the moment President-elect Trump tapped him to lead the EPA. Pruitt was one of the biggest foes of the agency during the Obama administration, suing it 14 times when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general. Pruitt remains a loathed figure on the left for following through on his promise to dismantle much of President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy, including his successful push to have Trump commit to withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement last May. Just this week, Pruitt announced that EPA would roll back Obama-era fuel-efficiency standards for future cars and light trucks.

— When did the criticism become about more than Pruitt’s policies?

Blame or credit a series of recent news reports revealing Pruitt’s seeming penchant for spending taxpayer money.

The scrutiny began when the Washington Post began reporting on Pruitt’s repeated first-class flights and stays in high-end hotels while ostensibly on government business. The costs included at least $120,000 spent last June for Pruitt, his aides and his round-the-clock security detail to travel to Italy for a conference. By comparison, the agency spent about $56,000 to send Pruitt’s immediate predecessor, Gina McCarthy, and her team to Italy in 2015.

— Why did the EPA insist on flying Pruitt premium-class?

Pruitt’s security detail pointed to threats some members of the public have made against him since he took office in February 2017 and said sitting near the front of a plane allowed for easier boarding and exit. But airline safety and security experts struggled to fully explain the EPA’s rationale as to why the premium seats are safer. While government policy allows for the purchase of premium-class flights for long international trips (so high-level officials are fresh for meetings right after landing), Pruitt often flew first-class domestically. After a wave of criticism about the practice, he suggested recently that he would look for ways to return to coach seating while still following his security detail’s advice.

— In what other ways has the EPA chief been accused of wasting taxpayers’ money?

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Pruitt insisted in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday that he knew nothing about the big salary hikes awarded two staffers last month until The Atlantic reported it, and he blamed other staff members for awarding the raises by utilizing a little-known provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act. The controversy even has some Republican lawmakers calling for him to step down or be fired.

“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 @POTUSto dismiss him.,” tweeted Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.

— Whoa.

Whoa indeed. In general, Pruitt has defended his actions in office, mostly in appearances on conservative media outlets.

But when pressed during the Fox News interview on who exactly awarded those raises, Pruitt said, “I don’t know.” One important fact: The 1977 provision the EPA used to grant the salary increases gives the special hiring authority directly to Pruitt himself.

That seems bad.

It gets even worse once you learn that White House officials urged Pruitt to think twice about doing any interviews Tuesday or Wednesday, according to several senior administration officials. Chief of Staff John Kelly got on the phone, too, with Kelly expressing dissatisfaction with Pruitt’s previous media sit-downs. But the EPA chief ignored the message.

— What are the issues with his past living arrangement?

For the first few months of his tenure, Pruitt rented part of a Capitol Hill condo apartment for $50 nightly. The place is co-owned by the wife of a lobbyist, J. Steven Hart, whose firm Williams & Jensen lobbies on energy and transportation issues. In addition to the rental’s surprisingly low price given its location, Pruitt only had to pay for the nights he stayed in Washington.

By comparison, Pruitt now lives in a building where rents begin at about $3,000 monthly. He and his wife still own a home in Tulsa, with an estimated $5,500-a-month payment for mortgage and taxes.

— Anything else?

Yep, there are numerous mini-controversies revolving around Pruitt. He has faced scrutiny over the costs of hiring a 24/7 security detail and of installing a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office. He has also faced questions about his extensive interactions with industry representatives since taking office. His schedule for meetings or travel is never released in advance.

— How have Republicans reacted to all this?

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Some, including Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have come to Pruitt’s defense this week.

“ScottPruitt is likely the bravest and most conservative member of Trump’s cabinet. We need him to help @realDonaldTrump drain the regulatory swamp,” Paul tweeted.

That parallels the GOP reception he typically has gotten every time he’s visited Congress for hearings, with lavish praise from lawmakers representing states rich in oil, natural gas and coal for his efforts to unwind EPA regulations on those fossil fuels. All but one GOP senator, Susan Collins of Maine, voted last year to confirm Pruitt.

But the man who matters most is Trump. Earlier this week, the president expressed support for Pruitt after cryptically telling reporters “I hope he’s going to be great.” That tepid endorsement seems to be eroding, however. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was “not” OK with Pruitt’s old living arrangement. “When we have had a chance to have a deeper dive on it we’ll let you know the outcomes of that,” she said.

— So is Pruitt on his way out?

It’s very hard to say because we are, after all, talking about Trump. Pruitt has been one of his most effective Cabinet-level officials so far. And while boarding Air Force One on Thursday, Trump was asked by reporters if he still had confidence in him. “I do,” Trump replied.

But as former secretary of state Rex Tillerson can tell Pruitt, Trump’s opinions on his deputies can turn on a dime.

— — —

The Washington Post’s Brady Dennis contributed to this report.

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