EPA chief Scott Pruitt and his allies in the administration are on a mission to save his job — making their case to friendly media outlets while separately accusing a former agency staffer of a cascade of damaging leaks.
It’s all part of a larger campaign from Pruitt and his defenders at the EPA to create a narrative that he’s the victim of Washington forces fighting President Donald Trump’s agenda, even amid growing signs that top White House officials are losing patience with the negative headlines.
The defensive strategy combines exclusive interviews with conservative media, supportive statements in the broader press from trusted allies, and deflection that compares his activities and spending with past EPA administrators'. His staff has also taken steps to keep mainstream reporters away from him — declining or ignoring requests from numerous news organizations, including POLITICO, to attend an event at EPA headquarters Tuesday announcing a major rollback of Obama-era car and truck regulations.
After several days of silence about Pruitt’s $50-a-night condo deal with a lobbyist, agency discussions of leasing a private plane and unorthodox raises given to political staffers, Pruitt went on defense late Tuesday and Wednesday. He told a columnist at the Washington Examiner that the furor is part of a “toxic” Washington, D.C., atmosphere, spurred by critics who oppose his efforts to roll back regulations.
In an apparent bid to make his case directly to the president, Pruitt also sat down on Wednesday for an interview with Fox News, Trump's favorite news channel. Pruitt said he had only just learned of the raises and was working to correct the situation, and he said liberal critics were out to get him.
Meanwhile, an administration source who supports Pruitt told POLITICO that a recently dismissed EPA political appointee is behind a string of controversial stories about Pruitt that have come to light in recent weeks. The administration source said the former staffer would have had access to key details about Pruitt’s travel and living arrangements. But that staffer rejected the accusations when contacted by POLITICO — and suggested that the agency is trying to shift attention to leaks while attacking former employees who have questioned some of Pruitt’s decisions.
The former employee and the administration source both requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations at the agency. POLITICO is declining to identify the former staffer because it could not verify the accusations.
The administration source did not dispute any facts in recent stories on Pruitt's travel expenses or living arrangements, but argued that the coverage is not distracting the EPA chief from his policy wins for the president.
“It’s not just been a recent phenomenon we have received some negative press. It’s a little more piled on now than in the past,” the Pruitt defender said. “We’ve taken 24 deregulatory actions over his last 14-15 months here. I think we’re leading the Cabinet on deregulatory actions.”
The latest example came Tuesday with Pruitt's announcement that he would roll back Obama-era auto emissions standards. The announcement — an invite-only broadcast from EPA's headquarters — received wide coverage Tuesday, and Pruitt used his remarks to praise Trump's "tremendous courage" to "put America first."
But Pruitt is clearly still on shaky ground with the White House.
The White House has so far declined to come to Pruitt's defense on the record, despite reports from at least one anonymous administration official that Trump and chief of staff John Kelly reassured the EPA chief in a pair of phone calls earlier this week. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed to POLITICO only that the president and Kelly had spoken to Pruitt, but declined to characterize the substance of the conversations.
The final decision on Pruitt’s fate rests with Trump, who has no public events on his schedule Wednesday. Aides expect him to spend a lot of time watching cable news, which could further inflame his frustrations with the negative headlines about Pruitt.
Trump has fired multiple top administration officials in recent weeks, including former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin. While his frustrations with the three men were no secret, the timing of their ousters often surprised even some of his top aides.
One White House official said it remains unclear whether Trump will fire Pruitt, whose allies call him perhaps the most effective Cabinet member in carrying out the president’s agenda of dismantling Obama-era regulations. The official added that the final decision could hinge on whether the media uncover more damaging information about him in the coming days.
“Fox and Friends,” one of Trump’s favorite programs, does not appear to have mentioned Pruitt at all Wednesday morning — a potential bit of good news for the embattled administrator. Trump’s trade crackdown and its effect on the stock markets have dominated cable news.
Pruitt first spoke about the condo rental this week with Examiner reporter Paul Bedard for a blog called "Washington Secrets.” Pruitt also sat down with The Daily Signal, a conservative website run by The Heritage Foundation.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox pushed back on the idea that the agency was limiting press access to Pruitt, listing a number of outlets EPA invited to the auto emissions announcement, including Bloomberg, CBS, Daily Signal, Detroit News, Fox, Gray TV, Sacramento Bee, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. Other outlets showed up unannounced and were welcomed, he said.
Among Pruitt's small cadre of public advocates is David B. Rivkin Jr., an attorney at BakerHostetler who represented Pruitt in his Obama-era lawsuit against EPA’s big climate regulation for power plants. He took to NPR on Wednesday to defend Pruitt as a loyal Trump lieutenant.
“This is a man who is absolutely unassuming and austere in his personal habits,” Rivkin told NPR. He also dismissed concerns about Pruitt’s first-class travel. “The notion that flying these days whether in coach or first class is somehow pleasant, that you do it for personal enjoyment, is just silly," he said.
GOP donor Dan Eberhart, the CEO of oilfield services company Canary, said Pruitt’s housing arrangements “seem misguided,” but added he would like to see the EPA chief stick around because he’s been a “tireless advocate” of Trump’s agenda.
“I worry about the level of turnover the administration is experiencing,” he added. “Does Trump have the political capital to move yet another Cabinet official through the confirmation process?"
Multiple sources in industry and conservative circles expressed an unwillingness to vouch for Pruitt personally but praised his work.
Josiah Neeley, energy policy director for the free market R Street Institute, called Pruitt “one of the more effective members in the Trump administration,” saying that stories about Pruitt don’t seem to have distracted from policy work at EPA.
“We try and stay out of the personality stuff pretty across the board,” Neeley said. “I think that that is a very good policy these days.”
Defenders also argue that Pruitt’s bad headlines make for Beltway fodder but have little impact in the rest of the country.
But the news does appear to be breaking through in Pruitt’s home state, where the Tulsa World on Wednesday published a cartoon showing Pruitt sitting in the “special seat” on an airplane — an ejection seat.
EPA has also sought to redirect attention on Pruitt’s travels.
In recent weeks, before news of his rental broke, EPA had sent reporters from multiple outlets details on travel spending by his Democratic predecessors. Although contrasting such data is difficult because of Pruitt’s comparatively short time at EPA, conservative outlets like The Washington Free Beacon presented the data under headlines such as "Obama EPA Administrators Spent Eight Times More Than Pruitt on International Travel." (Obama's EPA administrators were in office for eight years, while Pruitt has been there for just over one — a fact that was downplayed in the Free Beacon's report. And it provided no comparison with Pruitt's expensive, domestic first-class travel, a luxury his predecessors did not routinely take advantage of.)
Ultimately, Pruitt’s most important audience is Trump.
And in announcing the rollback of the Obama-era car emissions rules, the EPA administrator made sure to leave room in his brief remarks to heap praise and credit on his boss.
“This president has shown tremendous courage to say to the American people that America is going to be put first,” he said at the gathering of industry officials at EPA headquarters. With the auto rule rollbacks, Pruitt said, “the president is again saying America is going to be put first.”
Quint Forgey contributed to this report.