It started on Sunday, with a front-page story in The Washington Post.
The Post's Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis reported in detail on how Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt has distinguished himself from his predecessors with his "secretive, costly and frequent" travel habits.
In the month of June alone, Pruitt jetted from Washington to New York, back to Washington, then onto Cincinnati, New York and Italy. By itself, the Cincinnati-to-New York leg on a military jet for the EPA head and his staffers cost taxpayers a hefty $36,068.50.
Pruitt left the summit of environmental ministers in Italy a day early to attend a Cabinet meeting at which Trump’s deputies lauded the president’s job performance. Then it was on to Tulsa, where the former Oklahoma attorney general has a home.
Sunday's story was hardly the first about Pruitt's flying habits. But the story engendered a new round of scrutiny that filled in more holes around EPA chief's travel habits. Pruitt did himself no favors by taking one more first-class flight since the story came out.
The narrative of a high-flying Trump Cabinet official is reminiscent of the repeated allegations that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price took a host of charter flights at taxpayer expense. Price was forced to resign in September amid rampant criticism. But Pruitt has an advantage Price didn't: President Trump likes Pruitt, and he is getting environmental deregulation done in a way Price was not able to do on health care. The EPA chief is also considered one of Trump's most effective political appointees.
This week, the headlines kept coming as the EPA fought to respond to the burgeoning storyline.
On Tuesday, Pruitt was spotted taking a first-class flight from Washington to Boston, according to Politico.
After the EPA administrator landed, he told the New Hampshire Union Leader he is "not involved in any of those decisions" about travel arrangements. "Those are all made by the [security] detail, the security assessment in addition to the chief of staff," he added. The EPA told Politico that Pruitt has a “blanket waiver” from federal standards limiting government employees from booking first-class tickets because of concerns about his security. EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told The Post on Sunday all of Pruitt’s travel expenses have been approved by federal ethics officials.
In pushing back strongly against accusations of impropriety — a Trump-like stance the EPA's media shop has adopted — the agency kicked up more dust than it bargained for. As other reporters tried to confirm the latest first-class ticket, the EPA told the New Republic to "contact Politico about the accuracy of their reporting."
I asked the EPA to confirm Politico's report that Scott Pruitt took a first-class flight to Boston this morning. EPA's Jahan Wilcox replied: "We encourage you to contact Politico about the accuracy of their reporting." https://t.co/eTUQtMbiV0— Emily Atkin (@emorwee) February 13, 2018
The Politico reporter who broke the Boston-flight story did have something to say — publicly, on Twitter:
EPA was *fully* aware of what we were reporting and had no objections. This game can be played two ways. I'm very happy to post a screen shot of the text message if they'd like. https://t.co/ZdnXdC5fOL— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) February 13, 2018
When pressing about that "blanket waiver," the agency told reporters to file a Freedom of Information Act request instead of answering questions.
EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox confirms to me that @EPAScottPruitt has a “blanket waiver” to fly in business and first class for “security threats.”— Miranda Green (@mirandacgreen) February 14, 2018
Said reporters had to FOIA EPA for more details about who signed off on the waiver.
The latest media hit came Tuesday night, when CBS News aired an evening-news report on Pruitt's travel, revealing the EPA head flew back from Milan on the luxurious Emirates Airlines. The carrier was the only one "that would get the administrator back in time" for the Cabinet meeting, the EPA told CBS.
Pruitt may not end up in the same situation as Price, however, for the simple reason that he is considered effective by Trump and his conservative allies. Some of Trump's favorite talking points — pulling out of the Paris climate accord, beginning the repeal of the Clean Power Plan — were engendered by Pruitt's EPA. His position in the administration is much stronger than that of Price when the former Georgia lawmaker was canned in September shortly after Congress failed yet again to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But that doesn't mean Democrats won't try to take every advantage of the story. As Dan Pfeiffer, former senior adviser to President Obama, says:
This is exactly the sort of thing that can lose an election, but Dems need to relentlessly communicate the Republican culture of corruption https://t.co/dtCP5uTcve— Dan Pfeiffer (@danpfeiffer) February 14, 2018
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— More gas tax talk: Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Tuesday a gas tax to pay for transportation funding is “on the table.” "The president has not declared anything out of bounds," Chao said when asked whether the administration would consider a 25-cent-a-gallon increase, per Fox Business.
— Dirty uses for "clean coal" money: The Energy Department’s inspector general found Summit Power Group, a company awarded $450 million in grants from Obama’s Energy Department in money meant for carbon capture, spent $1.3 million on “unallowable costs,” including spas, alcohol, first-class travel, limousines, catering on a private jet and travel expenses, and another $1.2 million on lobbying efforts to change how the grant funds are taxed, Bloomberg reports.
— Trump vs. the intel community: The U.S. intelligence community broke with President Trump’s White House again — not over Russia meddling but over climate change. “The impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent -- and possibly upheaval -- through 2018,” says the Worldwide Threat Assessment, which was submitted for a Tuesday hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, per Bloomberg News.
— Billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer convened a panel of five mental health experts this week who warned about the consequences of the president’s mental health for the nation, Politico reports. It’s the latest effort from Steyer, who has stoked speculation about his own political plans with his efforts to impeach Trump.
— She was naming lawmakers who took oil-and-gas money, then they barred her from the public hearing: Lissa Lucas, a little-known candidate for a state house seat in rural West Virginia, was removed from a West Virginia House Judiciary Committee hearing last week when she began listing the oil and gas donations to lawmakers’ campaigns, The Post’s Avi Selk reports. “I was hoping to make them realize how it looks,” she said. “It’s not just the issue of impropriety. It’s the issue of the appearance of impropriety that’s breaking our government.”
— Moniz moves: Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz will join the board of utility giant Southern Company. Moniz served in the Obama administration from 2013 to 2017. “I have long admired Southern Co. for its innovative approach to research and development within the clean energy space and look forward to joining the board,” Moniz said in a statement. He will join as an independent director beginning on March 1.
— Roses are green, and violets can be green too: What does it mean to have an “eco-friendly” flower for Valentine's Day? It’s a “thorny” issue, Bloomberg News acknowledges. “Were chemicals used? Did the farm practice good water management? Is the farm built on land that formerly hosted a rainforest? Were the people who grew the flowers paid fairly and treated humanely? What was the ecological cost of transporting the flowers?,” the news site asks. Marc Hachadourian, director of the Nolen Greenhouses at the New York Botanical Garden, said “it’s a complicated and much deeper issue than just saying something is sustainably grown.”
— The conditions that led to a multiyear drought in California are back: And by at least one measure, the drought has already returned. “A ridge of high-pressure air off the West Coast has persisted for much of the past three months, blocking many Pacific storms from reaching California and weakening others that do get through,” the New York Times reports. “Normally such ridges tend to come and go, but they also lingered during the 2012-16 drought, the worst in the state’s history.”
— How the climate affects your health: Doctors in Florida are warning about the risks of the changing climate on public health, forming a group called “Florida Clinicians for Climate Action.” “Heat worsens asthma, heart and lung disorders and even mental illnesses. Rising seas push floodwater polluted by leaky sewage pipes into neighborhoods. A changing climate helps spread mosquito-bourne diseases (think Zika), and research shows it makes hurricanes stronger and more common,” the Miami Herald reports. “And who’s most vulnerable? The same people that always are, doctors say: low income populations, the elderly and people of color.”
— ExxonMobil sues the suers: Oil and gas giant ExxonMobil, claiming state officials and environmental activists are “conspiring” against it, have targeted at least 30 people and organizations with lawsuits, threats of lawsuits or deposition demands, Bloomberg News reports. “Experts say Exxon’s combative strategy -- an extraordinary gambit to turn the tables -- is a clear sign of what’s at stake for the fossil-fuel industry." The company has denied allegations it misled investors about climate change amid investigations by the states of New York and Massachusetts along with lawsuits from municipalities.
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans holds an oversight hearing on “The State of the Nation’s Water and Power Infrastructure."
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks holds a legislative hearing on various bills.
- David Gardiner and Associates holds a webinar on "The Growing Demand for Renewable Energy Among Major U.S. and Global Manufacturers.”
- The Business Council for Sustainable Energy and Bloomberg New Energy Finance will release the 2018 Sustainable Energy in America Factbook on Thursday.
— Leave courtship for the birds: On this Valentine’s Day, The Post’s Sarah Kaplan explains why birds are just better at dating. “When it comes to courtship, members of the Aves class are a class unto themselves….And while their flirting strategies are a bit, well, unusual — blue-footed boobies try to attract partners by waggling their aquamarine appendages — they're certainly more creative than the pickup lines preferred by humans.” Watch some avian courtship rituals in the video above.