President tells embattled EPA chief to stay strong
President Trump offered a show of support on Tuesday for embattled Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt, who is facing calls to step down following a series of controversies related to his travel, staff and accommodations in Washington.
Trump called Pruitt on Monday night, the White House said, telling him to “keep your head up,” “keep fighting,” and that “we have your back.”
White House chief of staff John Kelly gave Pruitt a similar call Tuesday, according to reports.
“I hope he’s going to be great,” Trump told reporters later in response to a question about Pruitt as media were being escorted out of a White House meeting.
Two GOP lawmakers said Tuesday that Pruitt should resign following reports he rented a two-bedroom condo on Capitol Hill for $50 each night he slept there. Pruitt’s daughter also lived for a period of time in the condo, which was owned by the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist.
“When scandals and distractions overtake a public servant’s ability to function effectively, another person should fill that role,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) said in a statement calling for Pruitt to step down.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) also said Pruitt should resign, tweeting Tuesday afternoon that Pruitt’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 [Trump] to dismiss him,” he added.
Curbelo and the retiring Ros-Lehtinen both represent districts won in the last presidential race by Hillary Clinton, and have repeatedly battled with Trump on a number of issues, making their breaks with the administration over Pruitt unsurprising.
At the same time, their decisions to publicly call for Pruitt to resign ensure more GOP lawmakers around the country will be asked if it is time for the EPA administrator to resign.
Pruitt has been dealing with a flurry of damaging news reports.
On Monday, The Washington Post reported that the EPA considered leasing a private jet for Pruitt for $100,000 a month.
The Atlantic published a report Tuesday that said Pruitt gave two staffers raises after the White House rejected the request, and the Post later found that one of those staffers helped Pruitt search for apartments.
During his call to Pruitt, Trump steered clear of the controversies, only touching on the regulatory work the administrator is doing, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.
Kelly, on the other hand, warned Pruitt the White House is displeased with the recent news dump.
Trump has shown little patience for Cabinet members and other staff who attract negative headlines.
He recently pushed out Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Economic adviser Gary Cohn also left the White House.
Democrats are upping the pressure on Pruitt. On Tuesday, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Reps. Don Beyer (Va.) and Ted Lieu (Calif.) called for the EPA’s inspector general to investigate the circumstances surrounding Pruitt’s condo rental.
Beyer and Lieu wrote that Pruitt’s rental cost “is far below market value and, as such, would constitute an impermissible gift under federal regulations.”
They warned that if the low prices were set by the wife of the lobbyist “with the intent to curry favor with him on an issue important to” their interests, that it could be illegal.
A spokeswoman for Inspector General Arthur Elkins said the office had received the lawmakers’ requests and would consider them.
A source with knowledge of the EPA’s operation, howver, said Pruitt was only likely to find himself in real hot water with the president if the media narrative distracted from his regulatory reform effort — something the source said Pruitt is well aware of.
So long as the news of his personal travel or rental agreements doesn’t overshadow the EPA’s policy decisions — like its Monday announcement to roll back car emission standards — the president wouldn’t have cause for concern, the source said.
Pruitt’s supporters in conservative circles are also standing by him because of his aggressive work to undo the Obama administration’s environmental agenda.
“These stories are obviously a distraction, and I hope he can work through them,” said Myron Ebell, head of the energy and environment program at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “The president causes enough problems with the administration with things that he gets into. So far [Pruitt’s] doing a great job and I think these are fairly minor issues.”
Nick Loris, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Pruitt will likely stick through.
“I personally think that he can weather this storm, given that he’s proven to work hard on accomplishing many of the regulatory rollbacks that the president wants,” he said.
“In terms of keeping the conservative, free-market base happy and keeping businesses and families across the country happy with what many have deemed burdensome regulations, the administrator has done what he wanted to do in his previous role as attorney general, and accomplish it in this new role.”
Pruitt has shown no signs that the scandals are changing his aggressive deregulatory agenda.
He hosted automaker and dealer representatives at the EPA on Tuesday, shortly after the White House revealed the calls from Trump and Kelly, to celebrate his decision to kick off the process of easing auto emissions rules.
“We will get this right going forward, this year,” said Pruitt, who criticized the previous standards set by the Obama administration.
“I think the focus in the past has been on making manufacturers in Detroit, making manufacturers in various parts of the country, make cars that people aren’t going to buy. And our focus should be on making cars that people purchase actually more efficient,” he said.
Pruitt held the event at EPA’s Washington headquarters, surrounded by automaker and dealer representatives and conservative advocates.
EPA officials allowed reporters from a handful of outlets to attend, but prohibited others, including The Hill. Video from the event shows Pruitt did not take any questions.
– Jordan Fabian contributed