Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt was at times slow to pay the rent on his $50-per-night lease in a Capitol Hill condo, according to two people with knowledge of the situation — forcing his lobbyist landlord to pester him for payment.
Pruitt’s living arrangement is the latest ethical issue to come under scrutiny by the EPA’s inspector general, which said Thursday it’s considering opening an investigation into Pruitt’s lease arrangement — a move that would add to reviews of Pruitt’s taxpayer-funded first-class travel, his use of special hiring authority to grant raises to aides and his spending on a soundproof phone booth for his office.
The EPA head was renting the condo from healthcare lobbyist Vicki Hart, whose husband, J. Steven Hart, is an energy lobbyist.
The cavalcade of problems has raised questions about Pruitt’s future in the Trump administration.
Though President Donald Trump told reporters “I do, I do” when asked Thursday whether he had confidence in Pruitt, an administration official said the president has begun asking friends and advisers what he should do about Pruitt.
On his way back from an event in West Virginia, Trump said he was considering how to respond to reports about Pruitt’s activities. “I have to look at them,” Trump said. “I’ll make that determination.”
But the president said repeatedly that he thinks Pruitt has done “a fantastic job.”
“I think he’s a fantastic person,” Trump added. “I just left coal and energy country. They love Scott Pruitt. They feel very strongly about Scott Pruitt, and they love Scott Pruitt.”
Trump’s conservative outside advisers have been mounting a defense of the EPA chief, urging the president not to succumb to what they argue is an unfair pile-on by the media.
White House officials, conscious of how quickly the president’s mind can change about defending or dismissing top advisers, have avoided publicly making any definitive statements about how long Pruitt will remain in his job. “I can’t speak to the future of Scott Pruitt,” White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said Thursday. “If the president has confidence in somebody, they stay.”
But behind the scenes, White House officials are frustrated with the way Pruitt has handled the crisis. While in many cases, the president has unilaterally dismissed Cabinet members and senior advisers against the advice of his top aides, Pruitt’s situation is a rare instance in which the president has remained loyal longer than other members of the White House staff, who are eager to see Pruitt gone.
West Wing frustration with Pruitt spiked after a Wednesday Fox News interview that one White House official called a “disaster.”
Trump, who watched the interview, was said to be unhappy with Pruitt’s performance, the aide said, adding that the EPA chief appeared to be unprepared for tough questions from Fox News correspondent Ed Henry.
Pruitt, for his part, has gotten conflicting messages from the White House.
During a phone call on Monday, Trump encouraged Pruitt to defend himself after the EPA chief complained that the press was out to get him, according to a person familiar with the conversation—which Pruitt interpreted as a green-light from Trump to do a series of media interviews in a bid to tamp down the scandals engulfing him.
But Kelly and other White House officials have found Pruitt’s efforts at a response to be lackluster and counterproductive. Kelly called Pruitt after Wednesday’s Fox News interview to discourage him from doing more press.
In a separate phone call on Tuesday, Kelly pressed Pruitt about whether more damaging revelations were coming, the White House official confirmed. The Daily Beast first reported Kelly’s comments. It is unclear how Pruitt responded, but the next day, the Atlantic broke the news that Pruitt circumvented the White House to grant raises to two employees.
And late Thursday, Pruitt faced a new batch of damaging reports, including one from The New York Times that detailed how at least five EPA officials were either pushed out or resigned from their jobs after questioning the EPA chief's expensive spending habits.
Pruitt’s lease agreement, first reported last week by Bloomberg News, has become a point of contention because political appointees sign an ethics pledge prohibiting them from accepting gifts from lobbyists — which would cover cut-rate lodging.
A lease agreement covering February through April 2017 indicated Pruitt’s rent was “payable on the 1st day of each month, in installments of $500 on March 1, 2017 and any remaining balance on April 1, 2017 based on days of actual occupancy,” according to a memo obtained by the Campaign Legal Center.
Had Pruitt stayed in the condo every night in a given month, he would have owed $1,500 — but canceled checks reviewed by Bloomberg show Pruitt made a payment of $1,700 on Sept. 1, suggesting he eventually paid his back rent.
A spokesman for Pruitt declined to comment.
The uncertainty about Pruitt’s fate comes in the wake of Trump’s successive dismissals last month of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Veterans’ Affairs secretary David Shulkin.
His situation may more closely resemble that of former “Apprentice” television star Omarosa Manigault, who was fired in December of last year despite the president’s initial objections after Kelly persuaded him that her abuse of a White House car service, among other things, was a scandal in the making.
Pruitt was among a handful of cabinet-level officials slapped on the wrist last month by Kelly, who called him into the White House to drill home the notion that — legality aside — “optics matter.” CNN first reported on the meeting.
For his part, Pruitt has made clear he wants to keep fighting. He pushed back on allegations in the interview with Fox News on Wednesday. In the interview, Pruitt described his housing arrangement as “an Airbnb situation” and said EPA ethics officials had signed off on it.
An EPA ethics official clarified later Wednesday that he had only concluded that the $50-per-night lease did not constitute an improper gift but did not investigate whether Pruitt’s arrangement ran afoul of other ethics rules.
Asked by Fox if renting a room from a Washington lobbyist was inconsistent with Trump’s promise to drain the swamp, Pruitt replied: “I don’t even think that that’s even remotely fair to ask that question.”