This post has been updated.
Scott Pruitt gave little ground Thursday as he testified before two House panels about controversial spending and management decisions he has made while at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency, blaming aides for exorbitant spending and saying career officials signed off on other controversial decisions.
Bolstered by Republican lawmakers, who praised his push to unravel Obama-era regulations and cut the agency’s workforce, Pruitt suggested the censure he’s faced in recent months stems largely from opponents who want to stall President Trump’s environmental policies.
“Those who have attacked the EPA and attacked me are doing so because they want to derail the president’s agenda. I’m not going to let that happen,” Pruitt told members of the House Energy and Commerce environment subcommittee during the morning. “A lie doesn’t become true just because it appears on the front page of the newspaper.”
Whether Pruitt’s composed performance will be enough to preserve his job remains unclear, but there were few signs Thursday that House Republicans were ready to abandon him. Few GOP lawmakers — among them, Rep. Ryan Costello (Pa.), who is retiring, and Rep. Leonard Lance (N.J.), who is locked in a tough reelection fight — criticized Pruitt during more than five hours of questioning.
Three White House officials said Pruitt’s testimony — while “not good,” in the words of one — did not deliver a knockout blow to his tenure. The EPA chief has little support among senior aides there, and the president has voiced more concern as allegations and investigations involving Pruitt have accelerated. Multiple probes are underway by the agency’s inspector general, as well as by the House Oversight Committee, the Government Accountability Office and the White House itself.
Trump did not watch much of the administrator’s testimony live, one official with direct knowledge of his schedule said, but will probably view segments later along with media coverage.
Democratic lawmakers pushed Pruitt hard on several fronts, prompting him to concede that he had known in advance of an aide’s pay hike, that he had not sought an ethics ruling on his rental of a condo from a lobbyist and that a costly soundproof phone booth installed in his office did not constitute the kind of secure communications facility commonly used by federal officials for classified discussions.
“I’m not afraid to admit that it has been a learning process,” he said.
Pruitt repeatedly faulted staff for spending decisions that have drawn intense heat and denied he had reassigned or demoted anyone who questioned those expenditures. Several people — including Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, Kevin Chmielewski — have charged that they faced retaliation after challenging plans to spend taxpayer funds on first-class travel, office upgrades and other perks for him.
The EPA chief insisted there was “no truth” to such reports, adding, “I’m not aware of that ever happening.”
He also said he had no idea that his request to install a secure phone line in his office would lead to the customized phone booth costing $43,000. “I was not aware of the approval of the $43,000,” Pruitt said at one point, “and if I had known about it, congressman, I would not have approved it.”
Midafternoon, Pruitt moved over to a House Appropriations subcommittee and was again pressed on how that phone booth came about. The decision to install it “should not have been made,” he said.
Referring more broadly to management and spending missteps at the agency, Pruitt told the panel, “If there are processes that have not been followed internally . . . I commit to make those changes prospectively.”
He addressed questions about his first-class travel by saying that, even with ongoing security concerns, he had returned this year to flying coach. “I recently made changes to that because I felt like, from an optics and perception standpoint, it was creating a distraction,” he said.
He said he was aware of the move to give agency senior counsel Sarah Greenwalt a raise but did not push for it. She and another staffer received significant raises this spring over the objections of officials in the White House Personnel Office. “I was aware of one of those individuals” receiving a raise, Pruitt told Costello.
Greenwalt got a 52 percent increase last month, while Millan Hupp, director of scheduling and advance, got a 33 percent boost. The Washington Post first reported last week that Greenwalt had emailed a colleague in EPA’s human resources department that the raises had been “discussed” with the administrator in advance. Each woman had worked for Pruitt in Oklahoma before coming to Washington.
Earlier, when Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) asked Pruitt if he had authorized EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson to sign the raises, Pruitt had replied, “I was not aware of the amount, nor was I aware of the [Personnel Office] process not being respected.” He said he had delegated authority to Jackson to review and approve such personnel actions — a move that was documented by a March 2017 memo the agency released Thursday.
Jackson reversed both raises on April 5, according to EPA documents.
While Costello and Lance bore in on Pruitt’s spending on security and travel, other Republicans lauded his aggressive actions to roll back regulations, most prominently the Obama administration’s signature effort to cut carbon emissions from power plants.
“The greatest sin you’ve committed, if any, is you’ve actually done what President Trump ran on, won on, and what he’s commissioned you to do,” Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) told Pruitt during the first hearing.
Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) mounted a defense on Pruitt’s behalf. “You’re not the first person to be the victim, for lack of a better term, of Washington politics,” the lawmaker told him. Referring to the fact that the administrator frequently traveled in first class during his first year at the EPA, Barton inquired, “Is it illegal to fly first class?”
Pruitt said that those tickets had been approved by the agency’s travel and security offices, prompting Barton to reply, “But it’s not illegal. It may look bad, but it’s not illegal.”
Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.) described the myriad allegations Pruitt faces as “a classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism,” adding he was disappointed his colleagues across the aisle couldn’t restrict their questions to ones about policy. “Some just can’t resist the limelight, the opportunity to grandstand,” he said.
The EPA’s press office issued a news release shortly before the second hearing, with quotes from Pruitt’s congressional supporters, including Cramer’s comment: “I never cease to be impressed by the level of detail you know.”
But Democrats were unsparing in their criticism. Tonko, the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee’s top Democrat, delivered a fusillade as Pruitt looked on impassively. After ticking off several allegations about the administrator’s personal financial dealings and professional decisions, the lawmaker said, “In almost all cases, the more we have learned, the worse they get.”
He concluded by telling Pruitt, “You have failed as a steward of American taxpayer dollars and of the environment.”
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), the Energy and Commerce Committee’s top Democrat, was even harsher. “You are unfit to hold public office, and you are undeserving of the public trust,” he told Pruitt.
Pallone pressed Pruitt on whether he had retaliated against employees who questioned some of his spending decisions. “Has it always been your practice to fire people who disagree with you?” he asked.
Pruitt rebutted the charge. “I don’t ever recall a conversation to that end,” he said.
The administrator did retreat some during an exchange with Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.). Previously, EPA officials had likened the privacy phone booth to a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) that Pruitt needed for secure conversations with the White House and other officials. A recent GAO report did not assess the booth’s security merits but said Pruitt violated federal spending laws by spending more than $5,000 upgrading his office without advance notice to Congress.
The phone booth “is actually not a SCIF,” Pruitt said, even as he rejected the GAO’s conclusion. He acknowledged that he has only used the booth sparingly. “It’s for confidential communications, and it’s rare,” he added.
At times, he professed to be unfamiliar with some of the technology his aides had installed in his office.
“What is a biometric lock?” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) asked.
“I don’t know,” the administrator replied. “I just put a code in.”