The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As a bruising week ends, EPA’s Pruitt hangs on to support from a wary White House

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)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Friday morning, Scott Pruitt slipped unannounced into the White House, where the Environmental Protection Agency chief has caused plenty of headaches and heartburn over the past week.

Long one of President Trump’s most assertive and effusive Cabinet members, Pruitt has strained the patience and goodwill of top administration officials in recent days amid a drumbeat of stories about his lavish spending, questionable housing arrangements and personnel decisions.

Senior White House officials, including Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, have almost universally turned against Pruitt, according to White House aides. Trump is hearing praise for Pruitt among allies and on conservative TV, one senior administration official said, adding that Trump noted he did not see so much support for other embattled aides and Cabinet officials.

Despite the growing ethical questions involving Pruitt — his $50-a-night rental from a lobbyist last year, huge raises last month for two top advisers despite a lack of White House approval and reports that employees who questioned him were transferred or dismissed — the president has continued to back one of his most favored Cabinet members.

In an Oval Office meeting Friday, during which the two men discussed the rollback of auto emissions standards, Trump was “very supportive” of Pruitt, according to an administration official briefed on the exchange. Trump also took to Twitter, both to dismiss rumors he was replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and to proclaim Pruitt “is doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege.”

Later in the day, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said while the administration is undertaking a “full review” of the various allegations against Pruitt, “The president feels that the administrator has done a good job at EPA. He has restored it back to its original purpose of protecting the environment and has gotten unnecessary regulations out of the way.”

Pruitt’s future remains far from certain, but administration officials said his apparent reprieve is largely attributable to the fact that he has pleased Trump by working tirelessly to eviscerate Obama-era regulations, including the rollback of federal restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions and toxic waste discharge from coal-fired power plants, as well as the recent move to revisit vehicle fuel-efficiency standards.

At every turn, Pruitt has shifted the agency in the direction of being more friendly and lenient for those being regulated. At the same time, he has shrunk both the EPA’s size and ambition, using buyouts and attrition to reduce the workforce to numbers not seen since those posted under President Ronald Reagan.

Trump’s reluctance to part with Pruitt might also stem from realizing how difficult winning Senate approval for another nominee could be.

As Pruitt was bombarded this week by news reports about his personal and management decisions, groups such as FreedomWorks and the Federalist Society expressed their support. Several Republican senators and governors rose to his defense.

“Pruitt is reforming the way the agency does business. Naturally, that means he has ruffled some feathers,” said Tom Pyle, head of the American Energy Alliance, a free-market advocacy group. “Nothing he has been accused of would justify to the conservative movement his removal at this point in the game.”

By Friday afternoon, it seemed clear Pruitt could breathe easier, at least momentarily. Government watchdogs are investigating his actions. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are demanding hearings and answers. Environmental groups and many Democrats continue to call for his ouster. He appeared to have survived in office during a week that probably would have ended the tenure of many other Cabinet officials.

Still, uncertainty and unease remained. Inside the White House, advisers wondered what Pruitt news might unfold next. They scrapped a long-planned announcement about a presidential order to expedite air-quality permits around the country.

Trump and Pruitt were scheduled to appear together to celebrate the directive as another easing of environmental regulations. Instead, officials decided, they would meet in private. 

Read more:

What you need to know about Scott Pruitt’s growing troubles

Scott Pruitt’s job in jeopardy amid expanding ethics issues

After leaving $50-a-night rental, EPA’s Scott Pruitt had no fixed D.C. address for a month

EPA explored private jet lease for Pruitt’s travels last year