politics

Trump Defends EPA Chief Pruitt's Spending, Condo Lease

  • President has seen condo lease documents, official says
  • Many Republicans continue to back conservative Cabinet member

Trump Confident in EPA Head Pruitt

President Donald Trump defended Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s spending on personal security and his $50-a-night room lease from a lobbyist’s wife, which have prompted calls for Pruitt’s resignation.

“While security spending was somewhat more than his predecessor, Scott Pruitt has received death threats because of his bold actions at EPA,” Trump said in a Twitter message late Saturday. “Rent was about market rate, travel expenses OK. Scott is doing a great job!”

Trump’s defense, his first to specifically address Pruitt’s lease and spending, came a day after he reviewed the controversies surrounding Pruitt during a White House meeting, an administration official said.

The official, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss internal administration matters, said the president reviewed the lease documents for a bedroom in a Capitol Hill condominium that Pruitt rented for several months in 2017. Pruitt’s former landlord, Vicki Hart, doesn’t have clients with business before the EPA, but the lobbying firm of her husband, J. Steven Hart, has several corporate clients that do.

Oversight Probe

Pruitt is being probed by the Republican-led House Oversight Committee about the lease arrangement, said a person familiar. The EPA provided documents to the panel, including memos produced on March 30 and April 4, to the panel this past week, the person said.

The revelations come amid mounting criticism and questions about some of the EPA chief’s practices. They include raises worth tens of thousands of dollars to two close aides over objections from the White House and taking first-class flights, as well as reports that several EPA staff members who questioned his practices were transferred to other jobs. At the same time, many prominent conservatives have come to Pruitt’s defense.

Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina indicated he’d begun inquiring into Pruitt’s actions, according to a video shot by activists on Friday and released by Friends of the Earth.

Wrong Person

On Sunday, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the only Republican to vote against Pruitt’s confirmation, said that “on policy grounds alone,” the former Oklahoma attorney general was the wrong person to lead the agency. In general, Congress needs to do some oversight on the issues of Pruitt’s spending, she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Asked whether Pruitt should resign or be fired, Collins said, “that is a position that only the president can take at this point” but that Pruitt’s actions validated her vote against his confirmation.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on ABC’s “This Week” that he’s looking to see what the Oversight Committee will say but “I don’t think you could get a room for $50 a night.” And Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, suggested that Pruitt should “stop acting like a chucklehead.”

But another Republican, Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota, said criticism of how Pruitt has conducted himself in office is a “nitpick” that’s really opposition to his policies. “He’s following through with the policies that the president said he wanted to implement,” Rounds said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Pruitt has come under criticism for having a 24-hour security detail, which his predecessors did not have. At least 20 employees were placed on the detail, some of them reassigned from field work, according a letter from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat. The Associated Press reported Friday evening that the security costs ran into the millions.

Yet even amid the accusations of ethical lapses, conservative stars have been coming out in force to save the job of a zealous advocate of their small-government movement.

Conservative Backers

Prominent Republicans and leaders of the Tea Party movement -- from publishing executive Steve Forbes to Senator Rand Paul -- are writing op-eds, posting on Twitter, and picking up the phone to personally beseech the president to keep Pruitt at the helm of the EPA.

“He’s a conservative hero,” Dallas investor Doug Deason, whose family has given millions to right-wing candidates, said of Pruitt. “It would be a huge mistake to do anything other than come out and support him.”

High-profile business leaders including billionaire Oklahoma oilman Harold Hamm have also been enlisted to make personal entreaties, and tell the president that Pruitt has done more than other top administration official to ease federal regulations standing in the way of manufacturing, mining, and drilling.

The right’s fondness for Pruitt is matched by the animosity he inspires among the political left. Environmentalists have campaigned against him since his confirmation in February 2017, casting him as an unabashed ally of corporate polluters who is dismantling regulations essential to safeguard the land, air and water.

Earlier: EPA Chief in Fox Grilling Denies Knowing Who Raised Aides’ Pay

“It’s a pretty sad statement of the priorities of these right-wing ideologues that they think someone who is clearly unethical and has no respect for taxpayers or the law is okay to keep around, as long as he pushes their dangerous agenda,” said John Coequyt, the Sierra Club’s senior director of federal policy. “Pruitt has been nothing more than their puppet, putting public health at risk to help corporate polluter’s bottom line, and this is exactly why he needs to go.”

Trump told reporters Thursday that he had confidence in Pruitt and called him “very courageous” amid a barrage of damaging revelations. Trump underscored that on Friday with a post on Twitter saying Pruitt “is doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege.”

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told Trump last week that Pruitt needed to go but the president is resisting firing him, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported.

Forbes, Meese

The conservative counter-effort involves darlings of the right. Edwin Meese III, an attorney general in the Reagan administration, former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, anti-tax campaigner Grover Norquist, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, and more than 100 other prominent leaders on the right issued a memo Friday highlighting Pruitt’s policy accomplishments and casting the EPA leader as instrumental to the president’s mission to slash through Washington bureaucracy.

Forbes, the millionaire chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes Media Inc. who ran for president in 1996 and 2000, wrote an opinion piece for Investor’s Business Daily arguing that Pruitt is under fire simply because he’s been too effective at “boldly redirecting the EPA” and reining in “a once-rogue agency that operated far beyond its constitutional authority.”

CRC Public Relations, headed by Greg Mueller, the communications director for Pat Buchanan when he ran for president, has joined the fray. The Alexandria, Virginia, firm, has circulated talking points and highlighted pro-Pruitt commentary.

Pruitt’s supporters have warned that getting any replacement approved by the Senate -- much less one as dogged as Pruitt -- could be impossible.

— With assistance by Sho Chandra

(Updates with senators’ comments from eighth paragraph.)
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