Energy & Environment

Five takeaways from Pruitt’s big testimony

Greg Nash

Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), faced a barrage of tough questions from lawmakers Thursday as he testified in front of two House committees.

Pruitt, who has been embroiled in controversy for weeks, fought back aggressively against his critics and dismissed the negative headlines about his tenure as “fiction.” 

Here are five takeaways from his big day on Capitol Hill.

He escaped disaster

Pruitt testified for nearly six hours, a grueling task for any Cabinet member, and seemed to mostly escape unscathed.{mosads} 

The hearings lacked fireworks, even as Democrats took turns excoriating the EPA chief and, in some cases, calling for him to resign.

Pruitt came prepared to answer questions about his spending and other ethics controversies. He tackled reports of his costs head-on in his opening statement, blaming the media for taking attention away from his regulatory work. 

“Facts are facts and fiction is fiction. A lie doesn’t just become the truth because it’s on the front page of a newspaper,” Pruitt said in both of his opening statements. 

The former Oklahoma attorney general appeared to have an answer prepared for every question thrown at him, ranging from his use of a privacy booth to his spending on his round-the-clock security team to raises approved for EPA staffers.

Pruitt didn’t once raise his voice or appear to be frazzled by the round of at times rapid-fire questions thrown at him. 

But by the final panel, lawmakers appeared to run out of steam, at times referring, and yielding, to answers Pruitt gave at the day’s earlier hearing. 

His strategy was don’t apologize and blame others 

If any lawmakers were expecting apologies or contrition from Pruitt, they didn’t get it.

Pruitt shifted blame for the controversies at the EPA to other people, including for his use of first-class travel, his unauthorized staff raises, his construction of a privacy booth and his use of a 24/7 security detail. 

Speaking in the afternoon to lawmakers on the House Appropriations Committee subpanel, Pruitt said he decided to change from flying coach to first-class due to threats against his life.

Pruitt cited two examples written in a leaked memo from the deputy inspector general as to why his around-the-clock security team was necessary. Two members of his security team sat directly behind him in the hearing room during the testimony, one wearing an earpiece. 

The administrator suggested that he no longer flies first-class, calling news surrounding it “a distraction.” He said he made a change.

On the agency’s approval to provide substantial pay raises to two EPA staffers who had moved from Oklahoma with Pruitt — one who Pruitt described at the earlier hearing as a “close friend” — the chief said he was not aware of the type or amount of the raises. He admitted, however, that he was aware of the raises, contradicting what he’d previously said in an interview to Fox News. 

Pruitt said after media reports surfaced, he directed his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, to stop the raises. Jackson has previously taken responsibility for the pay increases. The EPA released a document during Pruitt’s hearings that showed the administrator had in March 2017 transferred authority to Jackson to hire employees under the Safe Drinking Water Act. 

Pruitt also asserted that he was not aware of the nearly $43,000 cost of a privacy booth installed in his office last year. He said he had mentioned to staff not being able to take a phone call securely, but did not sign off on the booth and blamed “career staffers” who were involved “from the beginning to the end.”

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) last week found that the privacy booth’s construction yielded a number of violations.

Pruitt pledged to ensure that the EPA avoids further missteps.

“My objective to speak with you today is to provide confidence, and recognize faults where they have occurred and make sure they don’t happen in the future,” he said.

Republicans are concerned, but criticism was muted

It wasn’t all a walk in the park for Pruitt when it came to questioning from Republican lawmakers. While many focused their questions on policy decisions, others offered up harsh criticism over proposed EPA budget cuts that would gut or severely diminish a number of key programs in their states.

Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) opened the Appropriations Committee hearing by sharply criticizing Pruitt’s proposal to cut around 25 percent from the EPA’s budget.

“While some reductions may be in order, cuts of this magnitude put important programs at risk,” the chairman of the subcommittee said, pointing to eliminations or cuts the Trump administration is proposing to state grants, programs to clean up major waterways and grants to clean up diesel pollution.

For those lawmakers who did venture to question Pruitt about the controversies, they focused on his spending.

Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) expressed concerns over the costs of Pruitt’s security detail.

“When folks read about trips to Disneyland, professional basketball games, the Rose Bowl, and the additional security detail related to that, that doesn’t sit well with a lot of people,” Costello said. 

Costello, who is leaving Congress after this year, said he thought the EPA chief lacked “good judgment.”

“I believe you’ve not demonstrated the requisite degree of good judgment required of an appointed executive branch official on some of these spending items.”

Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) asked Pruitt to promise that he would take whistleblower concerns seriously.

“Assure me and employees of EPA that all whistleblower complaints will be taken seriously at EPA,” Harper asked Pruitt.

Pruitt responded: “This is not one of those situations, but absolutely that is something I can commit to you and will commit to you.”

Pruitt has plenty of allies in Congress 

Numerous Republicans rushed to Pruitt’s defense, not just applauding him for his work at the EPA, but portraying him as the victim.

Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) called the Democrats’ rhetoric “a classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism that unfortunately … I think works against civility and respect.”

“I’m hoping we would be able to stay on policy as much as we could, but some, I see, just can’t resist the limelight, the opportunity to grandstand,” he added.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said it was another case of “Washington politics.”

“Republicans do it when it’s a Democratic president, Democrats do it when it’s a Republican president,” he said.

Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) apologized to Pruitt.

“I apologize for the abrasiveness of some of my colleagues who would rather tarnish your character than really try to delve into the issues facing this great nation.”

Some of his statements could come back to haunt him

Pruitt made a number of statements that contrasted with his past statements and those of others.

For example, Pruitt testified that he knew about controversial raises given to two close aides, but said he didn’t know the amount nor that his chief of staff bypassed White House procedures to approve them.

Pruitt previously told Fox News’s Ed Henry during a combative interview that he didn’t know about the raises and that it was all done by a member of his staff without his knowledge.

In another instance, defending his security detail, Pruitt quoted the text of a letter that he said was an official “threat assessment” from the inspector general’s (IG) office. And he stayed by his claims, despite questioning from Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) about whether the letter did come directly from EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins. 

Elkins’s office has since disputed that, saying the letter Pruitt used was instead from Patrick Sullivan, the assistant inspector general for investigations. The office also said the letter was leaked without authorization. 

Pruitt also said he did not sign off on the $43,000 soundproof booth installed in his office, nor did he know its cost. 

“Career individuals at the agency took that process through and signed off on it all the way through,” Pruitt told Rep. Tony Cárdenas (R-Calif.). “I was not involved in the approval of the $43,000, and if I’d known about it, congressman, I would have refused it.” 

The White House Office of Management and Budget and the EPA’s IG are both looking into the booth purchase.

“If something happens in my office, especially to the degree of $43,000, I know about it before, during and after,” Cárdenas said.

Tags Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Betty McCollum David McKinley EPA Gregg Harper Hearing Jeff Duncan Joe Barton Ken Calvert Ryan Costello Scott Pruitt

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