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Opinion If Scott Pruitt thought Fox News would play softball, someone forgot to tell Ed Henry

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There was a tell-tale moment during last week’s 25-minute interview between Fox News correspondent Ed Henry and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt. “I thought we were going to talk about substantive issues,” protested Pruitt after about 18 minutes of chatter with Henry. “We are talking about substantive issues,” countered the correspondent.

Deep substance, actually. In a tour de force of adversarial journalism, Henry lobbed searing inquiries about the scandals swirling around the high-Trump-official-in-crisis du jour. He pressed Pruitt on towering pay-raise requests for a pair of EPA officials who had joined Pruitt from Oklahoma, where the ambitious politico had served as attorney general. He pressed Pruitt on the sweetheart rental on Capitol Hill for which the administrator paid $50 per night — and only on nights when he stayed at the “facility,” to use Pruitt’s term. He pressed Pruitt about an official — Albert Kelly — who was banned from the banking industry but managed to secure work running the Superfund program at the EPA.

Asked whether he was aware of Kelly’s ban, Pruitt said, “That is a settlement that took place between the FDIC and Mr. Kelly. . . . I don’t know the terms of that agreement or what was actually accused.” Quite an admission.

There was no gossip, no squish, no fluff — nothing but substance to this tete-a-tete.

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And the world is continuing to feast on Pruitt’s bumbling responses to Henry. On Monday afternoon, the Atlantic reported that email correspondence contradicted Pruitt’s claim to Henry that he didn’t know about the raises. From the story:

On Wednesday, Pruitt was pressed by Fox News’s Ed Henry to respond to The Atlantic’s report, but denied any knowledge of the episode. “You didn’t know they got these pay raises?” Henry asked. “I didn’t know they got the pay raises until yesterday,” Pruitt responded.
“My jaw dropped when he said that,” said the first administration official. The perception that Pruitt had gone on TV and lied, the official said, was what really scared people inside the agency.

Yet Pruitt’s expression of disappointment about “substantive issues” suggests that he was expecting something far different from Ed Henry — like, perhaps, the treatment that all those Trump associates, and the president himself, get from other folks at Fox News. Like, perhaps, Sean Hannity. The day before the Henry interview, Pruitt had given interviews to the Daily Signal — a publication of the conservative Heritage Foundation — and the Washington Examiner. They were far friendlier experiences than the Henry clash. HBO’s John Oliver joked about Henry’s clash with Pruitt on “Last Week Tonight“: “That is clearly not the Fox News tone that Pruitt was expecting. That is the face of a man who thought he was walking into an Applebee’s, and ended up in an apple full of bees.”

On April 4, Fox News host Ed Henry pressed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt on the many recent controversies swirling around him. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

In response to a request from the Erik Wemple Blog, the EPA press office provided a list of interviews that Pruitt has done since the beginning of the year. (See list below.) While Pruitt has sat down with several dozen outlets, the list is heavily weighted toward conservative media and outside-the-Beltway outlets, away from the closest EPA watchers. Clearly there are more than a few D.C.-based EPA beat writers who’d appreciate being added to the list.

The Beltway press — and others — have used the Fox News interview with Pruitt as a jumping-off point that has kept the EPA administrator squarely in the news. The Daily Beast, for instance, fact-checked one of Pruitt’s claims to Henry under this headline: “Scott Pruitt Says His Lobbyist Landlord’s Clients Didn’t Have Business Before the EPA. They Did.” And CNBC reported on Thursday: “The White House is reportedly upset that embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt gave a 25-minute interview to Fox News and believes the EPA chief was not truthful during the televised discussion.” (During Monday’s media briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the administration is reviewing “specifics” about Pruitt.)

The whole episode adds a few incisors to the Fox News claim that its news division — people like Henry, Shepard Smith, Chris Wallace, Bill Hemmer and others — does something separate from its Trump-boosting opinionators in the early morning hours — you know, the “Fox & Friends” crew — and during prime time. During an interview on Fox News Radio, Henry called Fox News a “wonderful cafeteria.” “You want to get Sean Hannity, he’s a great friend — go for it. He’s going to support a lot of the president’s agenda. I’m a reporter, I’ve got a different cap,” Henry told radio host Todd Starnes.  On Friday night’s “Hannity”, for example, President Barack Obama’s former economic adviser Austan Goolsbee said to the host: “If I were advising the president — I know he is your friend — you should be telling him to get as far as away from that as he can. Because I don’t think Scott Pruitt is going to be in his job very long.” Rather than engage, Hannity didn’t dwell on the Pruitt stuff.

Henry told Starnes he’s gotten “some heat on social media from some of the president’s supporters saying, basically, ‘Why are you drumming up this pay-raise issue?’ Well, you know what? Actually the president and his staff, they drummed up the pay-raise issue because they didn’t think it was a wise use of money. Now, look, I think I interrupted him a bit. You always think after the fact maybe I didn’t need to interrupt as much. I’m not perfect . . . What I would say was I wasn’t trying to make a point, a political point.”

By his account, Henry indicated that some folks were asking where he was during the Obama years. “You should also Google that, because I actually did,” said Henry, referring to his time as a White House correspondent clashing with Obama administration press secretaries. He lost his perch as White House correspondent after a May 2016 tabloid expose alleging an affair with a Las Vegas “hostess,” and after a spell off the air, he returned as chief national correspondent. He has now officially emerged from those shadows.

The EPA press office’s full list of interviews Pruitt has done since the beginning of 2018: