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Scott Pruitt heads to Capitol Hill as White House probes signal his shaky status

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt faces rising scrutiny over several ethics issues, including his use of taxpayer money. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On the eve of critical hearings on Capitol Hill, top White House officials are intensifying efforts to document wasteful spending by Scott Pruitt as President Trump weighs whether to keep supporting his controversial Environmental Protection Agency chief, senior administration officials said Wednesday.

According to the officials, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney has expanded an inquiry into the nearly $43,000 soundproof phone booth Pruitt had installed in his office to cover other costly expenditures, including tickets on first-class flights and stays at boutique hotels.

And the White House Counsel’s Office is examining allegations of unethical behavior, among them Pruitt’s decision to rent part of a Capitol Hill condo for $50 a night from a lobbyist and her husband, who had business before the agency.

A list of the investigations into Pruitt’s ethics and management decisions

EPA staffers are aiding both probes, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. Those investigations signal how uncertain Pruitt’s status is within the White House.

The administrator is expected to address the dizzying swirl of allegations on Thursday, when he is set to testify before two House panels about his agency’s budget. Several staffers said he was huddling privately with his closest aides on how to best answer non-budget questions. He has outlined plans to blame others for some of his most controversial decisions, such as the large pay raises given two staffers who moved with him from Oklahoma to Washington.

But even some supporters in Congress are growing impatient, with Republican lawmakers demanding greater accountability and telling Pruitt allies to stand down from praising him.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in a statement Wednesday that he has “been pleased” with Pruitt’s work “rolling back regulations and restoring the EPA to its proper size and scope, but these latest reports are new to me. While I have no reason to believe they are true, they are concerning and I think we should hear directly from Administrator Pruitt about them.”

Inside the White House, the EPA chief has lost the backing of many senior aides, including Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, and communications officials, lawyers and Cabinet affairs officials, whose calls he ignores. He is not interested in “turning the page,” as one senior administration official put it Wednesday.

Pruitt, for his part, believes the White House is leaking damaging details about him and is “out to get him,” in the words of a Pruitt ally. 

Trump is not ready to remove Pruitt from his post, according to individuals who have spoken with him, but he has become increasingly concerned as new allegations have continued to surface.

Marc Short, a senior Trump aide and longtime Koch brothers political operative, remains one of the few in the administration willing to defend him, administration officials said. Short has told donors and advisers in recent days that Pruitt has done well at the agency. 

Thursday’s budget hearings — before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on the environment in the morning and the House Appropriations subcommittee on interior, environment and related agencies in the afternoon — will expose Pruitt to the most intense congressional scrutiny he has faced. Despite his eroding support on the Hill, nearly all Republicans have stopped short of calling for his resignation.

Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), who sits on the Energy and Commerce panel, said he and other lawmakers will be looking at whether the administrator’s spending was more “a one-off,” like the $139,000 doors installed in Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s office.

“Like, Ryan Zinke’s doors? I wouldn’t have done that, but whatever. Sometimes a bad headline’s a bad headline,” Costello said. “But the sound booth thing, I don’t get that. [Pruitt] flies coach when he pays, and he flies first class if they pay? It doesn’t sit well, and it undermines his credibility.”

One Republican with longtime ties to Pruitt, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), has warned him that he could face a bruising inquisition. Cole, who sits on the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the EPA, said he told him the hearing would “be pretty rough. And be ready.”

“If you haven’t talked to the chairman yet, I would recommend that you do that,” Cole said he advised Pruitt. “And frankly, I would also recommend, if you have the time, that you call every member of the subcommittee, Democrat and Republican alike. Give them the chance to tell you what they’re concerned about, maybe even answer some of these in private.”

Pruitt appears to have heeded part of this advice, having called Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the Appropriations interior subcommittee. The administrator also contacted some lawmakers from both parties Wednesday to inform them that their districts had received agency grants to clean up former industrial sites, known as brownfields.

But he never reached out to Walden’s and Calvert’s Democratic counterparts, Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.) and Betty McCollum (Minn.).

“I think that he should resign, because he’s used his position to enrich himself rather than to address the health and safety of the public,” Pallone said in an interview Wednesday.

Keeping the White House at arm’s length, Pruitt has rehearsed answers aimed at deflecting some of the most serious ethical allegations to surface over the past few months. The prep sessions, which started last Friday, have included policy briefings from each of the agency’s program offices.

Staffers drafted a set of talking points titled “hot topics,” which has been altered over time and includes responses to several questions related to his spending practices. One statement in the document, which was first reported by the New York Times, addresses how Pruitt’s security team has begun to explore ways to have him travel without sitting in first class.

“Changes have already begun occurring, and I have been flying coach,” it reads.

Asked about Pruitt’s preparations, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox called the hearings “an opportunity to reiterate the accomplishments of President Trump’s EPA, which includes working to repeal [President Barack] Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States, providing regulatory certainty and declaring a war on lead — all while returning to Reagan-era staffing levels.”

The controversies have prompted at least one change among Pruitt’s senior staff: the accelerated retirement of the head of his protective detail, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, according to an EPA official. Perrotta — who advocated for the administrator flying first class as a security precaution, enlisted a business associate to conduct a security sweep of Pruitt’s office and endorsed other privacy measures — had planned to step down this summer. He now will leave sooner, the official said.

Perrotta did not return a call seeking comment.

While protesters gathered outside EPA headquarters to chant slogans nears Pruitt’s third-floor office, lawmakers such as Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) indicated that they were still willing to support him. 

“I hope he stays,” Roberts said. “Because what he’s doing to relieve farmers, ranchers, small-town folks of their regulatory morass has been good. I mean, results count.”

Dino Grandoni, David Weigel, Mike DeBonis, Aaron C. Davis and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

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