The April 9 gathering in the Oval Office was supposed to be about ethanol policy. But the meeting had barely gotten underway when President Trump turned his attention to Scott Pruitt’s “rough week.”
As Pruitt, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and White House counsel Donald McGahn listened, Trump mused about the size of the raises and whether the lease was indeed market rate, according to two senior administration officials familiar with the discussion. Then he switched to a happier subject, noting that Pruitt had shed “a lot of bureaucrats” from the agency.
Yes, Pruitt assured him. EPA staffing was “down to Reagan-era levels.”
“All right, Scott,” the president said, approvingly. But of the bad publicity, he added: “Cool it.”
Since then, Pruitt has adopted a determined strategy to placate the president and lie low. On his frequent travels, including a trip to the Midwest on Thursday, he has given up first class for coach when possible, according to aides. And he made a point of honoring a White House request for Cabinet officials to stop by a memorial to opioid victims installed on the Ellipse.
But while Trump has tweeted that Pruitt is “doing a great job,” the EPA chief is hardly out of the woods, yet.
In the past week, the Government Accountability Office announced a finding that his installation of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in EPA headquarters had violated federal spending laws. The EPA’s inspector general announced that it will probe Pruitt’s decision to have his security detail accompany him on personal trips. And more than half a dozen other inquiries are underway within the EPA, at the White House and on Capitol Hill, where Pruitt is slated to testify twice next week about his spending and management practices.
Meanwhile, the Senate has finally approved former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to be Pruitt’s deputy, a development that has been closely monitored in the West Wing. The day Trump signed Wheeler’s paperwork, a White House official said, aides in the West Wing called the agency to ask how soon the new deputy administrator would start.
The low-key Wheeler — a former staffer in the EPA and the Senate — was sworn in Friday, and his arrival could make Pruitt expendable should more embarrassing revelations surface, according to people inside and outside the administration. While Pruitt has long been a Trump favorite, he also has acquired a reputation as unresponsive and unwilling to take advice or instruction, according to three current and former White House aides, defiantly insisting that he has done nothing wrong and that Trump supports him.
“He believes in the audience of one,” said a senior White House official.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox declined to discuss Pruitt’s management practices, saying in a statement that the EPA chief remains focused on policy results.
“Administrator Pruitt has visited over 30 states. We will continue to visit those ignored by the Obama administration and implement President Trump’s agenda of regulatory certainty and environmental stewardship,” Wilcox said.
This story is based on interviews with 17 current and former officials in Washington and Oklahoma, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. They described Pruitt’s predicament as largely self-inflicted, the result of poor decisions by the EPA chief and a small cadre of trusted aides.
Although Pruitt continues to win high marks within the administration on policy, one EPA staffer said his management of the agency has become “a factory of bad ideas.”
Before coming to Washington last year, Pruitt was a rising star in Republican circles. Twice elected Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt had gained national prominence by challenging environmental policies of President Barack Obama. He once described himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”
As attorney general, Pruitt displayed hints of his taste for VIP treatment and high-end travel. He ditched his predecessor’s aging 2006 Lincoln sedan and spent $88,500 to buy two Chevy SUVs — a 2014 Tahoe and a 2015 Suburban — according to the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety. Pruitt also had an armed agent serve as his driver, shuttling him the 100 miles from his home in Tulsa to his headquarters in Oklahoma City, according to a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.
Pruitt’s two political action committees also raised and spent nearly $1 million over a two-year period starting in 2015, much of it on organizational expenses such as consultant fees and rooms at high-end hotels in Dallas, New York, New Orleans and Washington.
Pruitt, known as hardworking and aggressive, largely avoided the sort of controversy that has defined his time at EPA, an $8-billion-a-year operation that dwarfs the Oklahoma attorney general’s roughly $13 million annual appropriation.
In Oklahoma, “there were very few opportunities for an executive officer to engage in profligate or excessive spending,” said University of Oklahoma political science professor Keith Gaddie.
Pruitt’s arrival in Washington, however, seemed to bring a fixation on symbols of status, according to current and former administration officials. He demanded to travel on private or military jets, like the president and higher-ranking Cabinet secretaries. Aides even investigated a charter plane contract but rejected the $100,000 monthly cost as too high.
More high-profile and polarizing than many of his predecessors, Pruitt immediately became the subject of threats on social media and elsewhere, EPA officials said, causing him to embrace a broad range of security recommendations. Agency officials installed the private phone booth and biometric locks in his new office and, on the advice of his security chief, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, spent $3,000 to have the place swept for listening devices. (The agency hired one of Perrotta’s outside business partners to perform the task.)
“Similar security sweeps were done for EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy,” Wilcox said Friday.
Pruitt also accepted a round-the-clock protective detail, an unusual move for an EPA secretary, which so far has cost taxpayers at least $3 million in salaries and travel costs.
Other ideas were rejected: a plan to install a key card swipe system on the double doors leading to the waiting area outside Pruitt’s office. A request for a staffer to hand-deliver news clips about Pruitt to his home before he left for the office each day. A proposal to rent a second unit for Pruitt’s security detail in the luxury U Street apartment building where Pruitt was living last fall.
In “the current location security/special agents are not the norm, and as a result, we are now rather conspicuous” parked on the street overnight, Henry Barnet, the head of EPA’s Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training, wrote in a Sept. 22 email to senior EPA officials.
The questionable spending quickly alienated many staffers at EPA, including some Trump administration loyalists hired by Pruitt. At least half a dozen political appointees have left the agency, including a longtime Pruitt associate and head of the Office of Policy, Samantha Dravis.
Another departed Trump appointee, Kevin Chmielewski, in conversations with congressional investigators accused Pruitt of excessive spending and ethical missteps.
“When [Chmielewski] refused to support your unethical and inappropriate spending, he was marginalized, removed from his senior position and placed on administrative leave,” several Democratic lawmakers wrote to Pruitt in an April 12 letter. Others were “punished, demoted, and retaliated against when they tried to resist inappropriate directions that came from you or through your favored staff,” the letter said.
For example, after Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, raised questions about a plan for Pruitt to travel to Morocco in December, Pruitt texted Jackson and disinvited him from future scheduling meetings, according to Chmielewski.
Meanwhile, Pruitt’s favorite aides were rewarded. This spring, EPA senior counsel Sarah Greenwalt was approved for a 52 percent pay increase, from $107,435 to $164,200, while scheduling and advance director Millan Hupp was given a boost in salary of 33 percent, to $114,590. Both women had worked for Pruitt in Oklahoma.
The agency reversed the raises after a public outcry, and Pruitt told Trump and disapproving White House aides that he had not known about them in advance.
But a Feb. 27 email obtained by The Washington Post suggests Pruitt was aware the salary increases were in the works. In the email, Greenwalt asks an EPA human resources official whether she will receive “an increase in salary as previously discussed with the Administrator.”
Asked about the emails, Wilcox said, “Salary determinations for appointees are made by EPA’s chief of staff, White House liaison, and career human resources officials. Salaries are based on work history; and, any increases are due to either new and additional responsibilities or promotions.”
Through it all, Pruitt has soldiered on in his campaign to roll back environmental regulations and prioritize traditional EPA roles such as cleaning up toxic-waste sites and upgrading aging water infrastructure around the country.
But Pruitt’s personal controversies threaten to overshadow his professional pursuits. This month, the White House canceled an appearance for Trump and Pruitt at which the EPA chief had planned to announce changes to how states must comply with federal air-quality standards. Trump later signed the order without fanfare.
Pruitt has tried to tamp down the bad publicity. Since The Post first reported on his routine use of first-class airline travel in February, he has continued domestic trips but also has postponed trips to Israel, Mexico and China.
But Pruitt has fumed privately about the constraints on his travel and his ambitions. Two agency employees said they recently heard him liken his cloistered, wood-paneled office at EPA headquarters to “a prison.”
Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.