Environmental Protection Agency employees are talking about “backstabbing” and “civil war,” worrying about leaks or wondering whether to leak, pondering quitting while fearing that the mushrooming scandals surrounding Administrator Scott Pruitt will make it impossible for them to find a job.
And they’ve spent the past week facing an onslaught of media inquiries into rumors that, if true, might nudge the White House to push Pruitt out the door.
The internal EPA drama is infecting even Pruitt’s inner circle, which has been split for months between D.C.-based Republicans and some loyalists who followed him from his former post as Oklahoma attorney general — a few of whom, according to two former staffers, have been all too eager to sign off on the luxe travel and security spending that has spurred growing calls for President Donald Trump to fire their boss.
“It appears that the leadership at EPA is coming apart at the seams,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) wrote in a letter this week asking the House Oversight Committee to subpoena Pruitt’s spending records.
That’s an accurate assessment, POLITICO has learned after speaking to eight current and two former EPA staffers and an 11th former Trump appointee elsewhere in the administration. None of them were willing to be quoted by name, for fear of jeopardizing their jobs and dragging themselves into the headlines. Though the employees differ on many of the details, the picture they painted portrays an agency in chaos.
“It’s just a slow-motion train wreck at the moment,” said one staffer who has worked with the agency since the Obama administration.
“It definitely seems like there’s some backstabbing going on,” said one political appointee, who joined the agency last year after Pruitt became administrator. The person added, “Everybody is out for themselves right now.”
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox disputed that the agency is in turmoil.
“That’s false. It’s been a team effort from the beginning, and the hardworking staff at EPA is unified and committed to advancing President Trump’s agenda of regulatory certainty and environmental stewardship,” he said in an email.
Career staffers said morale was at an all-time low. “Nobody wants to be under fire, nobody wants their agency to be under fire — they want the agency to succeed,” said yet another employee. “Some folks are absolutely having a hard time with it.”
A different EPA employee said this past week’s spree of embarrassing headlines — from Pruitt’s $50-a-month condo deal to proposals for bulletproof desks and $100,000-a-month jet rentals — has accelerated internal speculation about how long until the administrator loses his job.
“I was placing bets he’d be out by the Fourth of July, but at this rate he’ll be out by the end of the month,” the staffer said. (In fact, as of Thursday, at least one website lets people bet on how long Pruitt will last.)
That decision will be up to Trump, who has praised Pruitt in public for doing a “fantastic job” even as his aides — including chief of staff John Kelly — have expressed increasing alarm at the EPA leader’s inability to stay out of trouble.
But in fact, another staffer said, employees suspect that Pruitt and his team are spending little time these days carrying out Trump’s policy agenda.
“We know the bosses, at least the administrator’s office, has zero bandwidth to be dealing with any policy issues right now,” the staffer said. “There’s no way on earth they’re going to worry about any detail of what we’re working on. ... It’s a little hard to push ahead on deregulatory actions while the guy who’s driving them seems to be going out the door.”
Among employees, that staffer added, the Pruitt scandal has come to dominate the workplace: Every hour, it seemed, someone would pop in to the room to announce the latest breaking story. Other agency veterans frequently checked news sites and social media for updates while trading stories, real or not, of senior staffers slamming doors and having yelling matches over the weekend and throughout the week.
EPA’s career employees were starting to feel fatigue over the “scandalous activities going on in D.C. by our boss,” said Mike Mikulka, president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, which represents about 900 unionized workers in EPA’s Chicago office.
Workers are especially incensed by Pruitt’s spending habits, including first-class travel and his secure phone booth, when Pruitt also pushes Congress to slash EPA’s budget and workforce. “He’s blowing money like there’s no tomorrow, spending money like it’s water, and at the same time we can’t even hire somebody to do a job that we need done,” Mikulka said.
Among Pruitt’s political employees, meanwhile, people are caught up in speculation about the source of leaks that could end careers.
Multiple sources familiar with the dynamic at EPA suggested that the agency’s leadership has been split into factions for months, recently heating up into a “civil war.”
Key EPA officials — many of whom joined the agency from Washington GOP political jobs or after working for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) — appeared frustrated with some of the inner circle of aides who followed Pruitt from his former job. Those staffers and leaders of Pruitt’s security detail have been eager to please the administrator and were less likely to push back on some of his travel and security arrangements, two former employees close to the situation said.
“It’s an environment in which people either feel that their work relies on spending time with the administrator, placating the administrator, doing his bidding or just allowing him to do whatever while [they are] focusing on the policy stuff,” said one past staffer who has continued to hear about the situation from current EPA officials.
Media-grabbing stories about Pruitt’s first-class flights, expensive security arrangements and condo rental from a lobbyist have “frustrated efforts to carry out Trump’s reform agenda, [which has been] stymied by personal conflicts of this administrator and his coterie of enablers,” the source said.
Big raises to Pruitt’s closest aides and allegations that his policy chief has been allowed to take months off of work have further irritated the situation, as have news stories that Pruitt had pushed out dissenting employees and tried to use his security detail’s sirens to speed through D.C. traffic to a trendy French restaurant.
Employees who have been drawn into signing off on Pruitt’s expenses, or who are on the front lines defending him to the news media, are frustrated — and some have considered resigning, according to the second former staffer. That person noted getting calls from one current employee looking for an exit but worried about job opportunities if the headlines get worse, and from others who were weighing whether it was time to air their own grievances via the media.
The leaks have spawned their own form of palace intrigue.
One administration source speaking to POLITICO has tried to pin the leaks on a disgruntled departed employee, while an EPA-specific trade publication alleged that some were coming from Rob Porter, a former Trump aide who was fired over reports of domestic abuse. The New York Times cited sources close to EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson who said he had considered resigning, and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), in a letter to EPA’s inspector general, contended that soon-to-exit policy chief Samantha Dravis hadn’t shown up at work “for much if not all of the months of November 2017-January 2018.” EPA called that letter “baseless and absurd,“ saying Dravis “has performed her duties faithfully for her entire tenure.“
Pruitt himself has either claimed that none of his actions are questionable or pushed responsibility onto staffers below him, including for the recent raises that EPA had granted to two of his political aides over the opposition of the White House. On Thursday, he took a break from media appearances and was in Kentucky speaking about regulatory reform at a meeting of conservative state and local air agencies.
On Friday morning, the president appeared to take his side, tweeting that Pruitt “is doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege.” But that didn’t mean Pruitt’s job is safe.
In the business community Pruitt regulates, few have publicly come to his aid, although some are backing up his policy record when asked.
“I don’t have any thoughts about the headlines,” Paul Bailey, CEO of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, said at the start of an interview Thursday. “We think Pruitt has done a really, really, really effective job policy-wise at EPA.”
A group of prominent conservatives in a letter to the White House on Friday also thanked the president for sticking with Pruitt, saying that his policy accomplishments override his controversies. Shortly later, 64 House Democrats followed Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and called for Pruitt to step down.
The scandals that have sucked up the attention of D.C. politicians and media have also started to weary the normal populace.
A woman living in a Capitol Hill apartment next to the one Pruitt rented for $50 a night, in a neighborhood swarming with reporters this week, made it a point to tell one journalist that that story is over: “He used to live here.”
Alex Guillén and Ben Lefebvre contributed to this report.