Make-or-break moment for EPA chief Pruitt

Make-or-break moment for EPA chief Pruitt
© Greg Nash

Environmental Protection Agency  (EPA) Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittCalifornia has sued the Trump administration 46 times. Here are the lawsuits Overnight Energy: Justices take up major case on water rules | Dems probe administration's dealings with Saudi Arabia | Greens sue EPA over toxic paint strippers Environmental groups sue EPA in bid to ban toxic paint strippers MORE faces a pivotal moment Thursday at back-to-back congressional panels where he will be grilled over a series of controversies endangering his tenure at the EPA.

Democrats have been chomping at the bit to challenge Pruitt, while Republicans have shown impatience with his negative headlines despite their support for the EPA administrator’s regulatory record.

“It will be a cordial reception, but he has some tough questions to answer,” said Rep. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenDems ready aggressive response to Trump emergency order, as GOP splinters Former Ryan aide moves to K street Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Lawmakers pay tribute to John Dingell's legacy on health care | White House denies officials are sabotaging ObamaCare | FDA wants meeting with Juul, Altria execs on youth vaping MORE (R-Ore.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. 

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The hearings before subpanels of the Energy and Commerce and Appropriations committees are Pruitt’s first in front of Congress since his future at the EPA came into question because of the string of controversies — including reports of a $50-per-night Capitol Hill condo lease from the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist and raises given to EPA aides without White House approval.

Pruitt’s performance could be a make-or-break moment, and the White House and congressional Republicans are among those who will be watching his answers carefully.

“What I’d like to see from the administrator, frankly, is some contrition and admission that maybe he’s gone too far, if he believes that, and maybe a plan for improvement,” said Rep. Kevin CramerKevin John CramerSenators highlight threat from invasive species Overnight Defense: Top general wasn't consulted on Syria withdrawal | Senate passes bill breaking with Trump on Syria | What to watch for in State of the Union | US, South Korea reach deal on troop costs GOP senators think Trump would win vote on emergency declaration MORE (R-N.D.), who has been a close ally to the Trump administration on energy and environmental policy. “I think that if he were to offer something like that, maybe he’d be offered some grace that he currently isn’t enjoying.”

Pruitt’s support at the White House has reportedly waned in the past weeks, with staffers going as far as telling members of Congress not to publicly support Pruitt, according to Bloomberg News. 

The White House on Wednesday did not give Pruitt a resounding vote of confidence, with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying it was “evaluating” concerns raised about Pruitt. “We expect the EPA administrator to answer for them,” she added.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice Department preparing for Mueller report as soon as next week: reports Smollett lawyers declare 'Empire' star innocent Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration MORE appears to have been Pruitt’s biggest supporter.

He tweeted earlier this month that Pruitt “is doing a great job.”

“It’s really up to one guy. You know, he plays to an audience of one,” Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeGOP dismisses polls showing losing battle on shutdown Bottom Line Dems hit GOP on health care with additional ObamaCare lawsuit vote MORE (R-Okla.), a member of the Appropriations panel, said of Pruitt’s relationship with Trump.

Cole said Pruitt reached out to him last week for advice on preparing for the hearing.

“He just said, ‘What do you think it’s going to be like?’ I said, ‘It’s going to be rough. And, you know, be ready,’ ” Cole said.

“As long as he’s got the confidence of the president of the United States, he’s going to be all right. He may have a rough ride. But if he were to lose that, then really not much else matters,” Cole told reporters.

Rep. John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusDems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants Lawmakers beat lobbyists at charity hockey game Ocasio-Cortez unveils Green New Deal climate resolution MORE (R-Ill.), who will be leading one of the hearings as chairman of an Energy and Commerce subcommittee, expected Pruitt to face questions both on his controversies and his policies.

“I think he’s done a good job in the policy. I think there’s been a lot of unforced errors that have taken people’s eye off of the policy,” Shimkus said.

Pruitt also reached out to Rep. Ken CalvertKenneth (Ken) Stanton CalvertMORE (R-Calif.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee holding the EPA hearing, for advice going into Thursday. 

Calvert said he told him, “Be prepared.”

“He’s a very capable attorney,” he said. “He’s spent some time in some very confrontational courtrooms in the past. I’m sure he’ll do fine in the hearings.”

Democrats were tight-lipped on Wednesday about their plans.

Rep. Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteOvernight Health Care — Presented by National Taxpayers Union — Drug pricing fight centers on insulin | Florida governor working with Trump to import cheaper drugs | Dems blast proposed ObamaCare changes Drug pricing fight centers on insulin Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by America's 340B Hospitals — Powerful House committee turns to drug pricing | Utah governor defies voters on Medicaid expansion | Dems want answers on controversial new opioid MORE (D-Colo.) offered a one-word expectation: “Fireworks.”

A person familiar with Democrats’ preparations said the lawmakers will try to be “prosecutorial” in their questioning to try to corner Pruitt.

The challenge, the source said, “will be what to elevate” given the “buffet” of controversies surrounding Pruitt.

Pruitt’s prepared remarks for the Energy and Commerce hearing released Wednesday make no mention of any of the scandals, and focus only on his budget request and his priorities at the agency, such as closing Superfund sites and expanding clean drinking water.

But a document obtained by The New York Times on Wednesday shows Pruitt will likely come to the Capitol armed with talking points that mostly aim to shift blame for the scandals to others — namely his chief of staff and security heads.

Pruitt has previously sought to explain away many of the controversies as having been driven by his liberal opponents.

“There are people that have long in this town done business a different way and this agency has been the poster child of it,” he told the Washington Examiner earlier this month. “And so do I think that because we are leading on this agenda that there are some who want to keep that from happening? Absolutely.”

If Pruitt just tries to shift blame on Thursday and does not show some contrition, however, it could backfire.

When he tried to deflect blame during an interview with Fox News’s Ed Henry the same week as the Examiner interview, it blew up in his face.

“President Trump said he would drain the swamp. Is that renting an apartment from the wife of a Washington lobbyist?” Henry asked at one point during the sit-down interview.

“I don’t think that that’s even remotely fair to ask that question,” Pruitt shot back.

Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) said Pruitt should apologize to the American people and try to be transparent.

“What I’d do if I were Pruitt … I’d call a full-blown press conference and say ‘I’m here as long as y’all want to talk,’ ” suggested Kennedy. “ ‘Here’s what I did, here’s why I think it was right, and I’m going to defend myself. Here are the criticisms that I think are fair, here’s what I’m going to do differently.’ ”