EPA strife spotlights Trump-era infighting

Political infighting that has been a hallmark of the Trump White House is spreading to the rest of the administration — and to K Street as well.

Bitter battles between people who are supposed to be on the same side have become a feature of President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE’s Washington.

The most memorable example was the short-lived tenure of White House communications director Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciScaramucci: Trump sees Bloomberg as threat Scaramucci: Trump will be gone by March 2020 Scaramucci hits back after Bullock solicited personal message of praise MORE, whose foul-mouthed diatribe about former chief of staff Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusFounder of veterans group says Trump Jr. can join the military if he 'really wants to understand what sacrifice is all about' Mulvaney faces uncertain future after public gaffes Politicon announces lineup including Comey, Hannity, Priebus MORE led to his ouster. But there was also infighting between former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon and Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerUN pushes back on US reversal on Israeli settlements Pompeo announces Israeli settlements do not violate international law Trump to tour Apple factory with Tim Cook on Wednesday MORE, the president's adviser and son-in-law, that often spilled into public view.

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Now the internecine warfare is tearing at the fabric of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittIs Big Oil feeling the heat? Overnight Energy: EPA delays board's review of 'secret science' rules | Keystone pipeline spill affecting more land than thought | Dems seek probe into Forest Service grants tied to Alaska logging EPA delays advisers' review of 'secret science' rules MORE has faced months of scrutiny over a string of staff and spending controversies that has lowered morale at the agency and angered Pruitt’s political allies.

The latest incident involved reports that an EPA press aide had shopped a negative story to reporters about an Interior Department political staffer, claiming the person was working with an EPA whistleblower to leak negative stories that could bring down Pruitt.

Much of the EPA story centers on Kevin Chmielewski, the former Trump body man hailed as a “gem” by the president from a 2016 campaign rally stage in Maryland.

Chmielewski, a former Merchant Marine, raised concerns about Pruitt’s spending on staff and travel while serving as deputy chief of staff of operations at the EPA, and eventually was pushed out.

He has since been a source for reporters and Democrats and has been cast as a whistleblower. Leaked stories about Pruitt have been blamed on Chmielewski and people unhappy with how he was treated — and those unhappy with the leaks have sought to strike back.

The Atlantic reported in early May that Michael Abboud, a member of the EPA’s press team who was also a communications coordinator for the Trump campaign, was shopping a story that blamed leaks about Pruitt on Chmielewski and an official at the Interior Department.

A source with knowledge of the incident told The Hill that Abboud was pitching the negative story as a way to defend Pruitt.

The Atlantic linked to a story published earlier the same day by a right-wing website that said Chmielewski and Interior Department deputy press secretary Alex Hinson had been behind the leaks about Pruitt.

EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox has called reports that Abboud was story-shopping “categorically false.”

Abboud did not respond to a request for comment.

The Atlantic also reported that Abboud was offering Healy Baumgardner, a former energy lobbyist and partner and director of government affairs at the U.S. China Exchange Group, to reporters as a “source” on the proposed story.

Screenshots of a three-way text conversation obtained by The Hill between Chmielewski, Hinson and Baumgardner show Chmielewski telling the other two that he had been asked to resign from the EPA on Feb. 12.

Hinson responded, “F---. That.” and told Chmielewski to reach out to a White House Office of Presidential Personnel staffer “and then blow the roof off this.”

Baumgardner responds to the group: “Don’t do anything drastic.”

On Monday, a photo of a shortened version of that text conversation was published by the same website that posted the earlier story on leaks. In that screenshot, Baumgardner’s name is not shown.

Chmielewski in an interview with The Hill accused Baumgardner of sharing the group text with the site.

“It’s 100 percent Healy. She’s an energy lobbyist — so that’s what's happening. Obviously that industry is furious with me right now because I’m taking down their best friend,” Chmielewski said, referring to Pruitt.

Baumgardner did not respond to a request for comment.

The three former Trump campaign staffers all at one time were friendly, frequently sharing group text messages. Hinson helped with the campaign’s push in Arkansas and Baumgardner was a campaign adviser. In the same text conversation on Feb. 12 that Chmielewski shared with The Hill, Baumgardner told the two men about the death of her dog, Bruiser.

But in a post on her Facebook page this month, Baumgardner linked to the story accusing Chmielewski and Hinson of leaks, writing in a comment that “anyone associated with this guy, or hurting the President should be fired. Sick!”

A text message shown to The Hill showed Baumgardner also reached out to Hinson’s mother, who she had met while on the Trump campaign. In the message, Baumgardner warned Hinson’s mom that her son was on “team Kevin” rather than “team Trump.”

“She reached out to basically get him in trouble, to get him to stop being friends with me,” said Chmielewski, who said Hinson notified him after his mother sent him a screenshot of the text from Baumgardner. 

“We’ve all met them a couple times — but that’s the extent of it," Chmielewski said of meeting Hinson's parents. "That’s sacred ground right there, and that’s when Alex said enough is enough.”

Critics of the Trump administration blame its penchant for infighting on the president, who is known to enjoy having subordinates compete with one another for influence.

“An institution is the length and shadow of one man. People model the explicit behavior of the guy at the top and there is a belief on the Trump team that the rules don’t matter,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican political strategist who frequently targets Trump for criticism.

Wilson said the internal discord he’s seen within the White House and the entire administration stems from lack of experience from younger staffers who rode to victory off a campaign that came to be outside the normal parameters of politics.

He also pointed to the constant fear. The president’s propensity to determine which top adviser or Cabinet member is in or out at the drop of a dime, or often the push of a tweet, leaves those working for him in the lurch, fearing the worst could happen.

“There is no team in Trump World at all. It is a brutal Darwinian experiment,” said Wilson. “They are all afraid of losing Donald Trump’s affections, and rightly so. He’s mercurial and temperamental. ... These guys are all thinking, 'I can be next unless I throw some fire underneath some other sucker.'”

At the EPA, the constant battles are wearing on some employees.

A career EPA staffer who’s served under four administrators and has been at the agency for a decade said the atmosphere between political staffers there has never been this bad.

“I’ve never seen it like this,” the career staffer said. “The infighting in the upper management is really destroying productivity.”

EPA spokespeople have publically denied reports of a tumultuous environment in the agency but staffers still at the EPA and people who have exited the department describe the situation as difficult.

“Work has slowed down because everybody is waiting to see what the latest scandal is or they’re busy checking the news when they hear about something to figure out what’s the latest,” the career staffer said. “It’s a complete and utter distraction.”

The distrust also extends to the relationship between the EPA and the White House, which many observers have described as ice cold.

Pruitt has been dealing with speculation about his future at the EPA for months, and while he has survived controversy after controversy, last week new reports surfaced that the White House is tiring of the noise.

White House aides have reportedly advocated for Pruitt’s dismissal. In the lead-up to Pruitt’s two congressional hearings in April, White House aides told reporters that Pruitt’s team had rejected their offers to help the administrator prepare.

“I think some people in the White House think the agency should be more deferential and the core group at the EPA who have earned the administrator’s trust don’t trust people at the White House,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican strategist who worked on the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign. “So it’s become some sort of rivalry. So it’s become unhealthy.”

Timothy Cama contributed to this story.