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Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt has embarked on a whirlwind conservative media tour, seeking to defend himself amid a blizzard of news stories about potential ethical violations during his first year running the agency.
Over the past two days alone, Pruitt sat down for interviews with the Washington Examiner to play down his cheap $50-per-night lease for a Capitol Hill condo from the wife of a lobbyist (“I’m dumbfounded that that’s controversial") and with the Washington Times to dismiss inquiries about spending most of last August outside Washington while running a federal agency ("The next thing … is going to be, ‘Do you like brown shoes or black shoes?’ ").
At these and other right leaning outlets, President Trump's environmental enforcer was given breathing room.
But not so at the biggest conservative-leaning outlet of them all, Fox News.
The 25-minute interview Pruitt granted the network must have felt like an eternity for the EPA administrator as chief political correspondent Ed Henry, who reports for the network’s hard-news division, barraged Pruitt with question after question about his spending on first-class flights, living arrangements and hiring practices during his less than 14 months on the job.
The unrelenting interview from the take-no-prisoners Henry seemed to catch Pruitt off-guard, and overshadowed the media blitz with friendly journalists the EPA seemed to try to orchestrate in response to the slew of bad news.
Pruitt's fate ultimately rests with one of Fox News's most avid viewers: Trump himself, who is known to be sensitive to scandals surrounding his Cabinet secretaries. Politico reports Trump has "no public events on his schedule Wednesday," which could give him time to watch.
The White House is reviewing the latest Pruitt revelations. Trump reassured Pruitt in a Monday night phone call and cryptically told reporters the next day, “I hope he’s going to be great.” But then on Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the president is “not” okay with Pruitt’s old living arrangement.
“When we have had a chance to have a deeper dive on it we’ll let you know the outcomes of that but we’re currently reviewing that at the White House,” Sanders told reporters. In addition, White House chief of staff John Kelly had a "less-than-cordial" phone call with Pruitt insisting the scandals need to stop, the Daily Beast reports.
Press Sec. Sanders says Pres. Trump is "not" okay with ethical questions over EPA chief Scott Pruitt.— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) April 4, 2018
"We're currently reviewing that here at the White House." https://t.co/wwdVngIGpZ pic.twitter.com/vxKMPLJNmt
Fox's report may not help Pruitt. Just take this exchange on Pruitt's use of a little-known legal loophole to grant significant raises to two young EPA staffers even after that request was rebuffed by White House officials.
"If you're committed to the Trump agenda, why did you go around the president and the White House and give pay raises to two staffers?" Henry asked.
Pruitt interrupted: “I did not. My staff did, and I found out about it yesterday and I changed it.”
“Who did it?" Henry said. "A career person or political person?”
Pruitt responded, “I don’t know."
“You don’t know? You run the agency. You don’t know who did this?”
Pruitt acknowledged it “should not have been done,” and said there “will be some accountability on that.”
But the 1977 provision the EPA used to give the raises grants the special hiring authority directly to Pruitt himself.
Henry also asked about Pruitt's relationship to the staffers, who like Pruitt are from Oklahoma. “So, hang on. Both of these staffers who got these large pay raises are friends of yours. I believe from Oklahoma right?”
“They are staffers here in the agency," Pruitt said.
“They are friends of yours,” Henry said.
Ultimately, Pruitt did not answer the question. “Well, they serve a very important person,” he replied.
Henry also asked Pruitt about his cheap living arrangement last year in the lobbyist-linked condo.
"Is draining the swamp renting an apartment from the wife of a Washington lobbyist?” asked Henry, referring to one of Trump's campaign trail slogans.
“I don’t think that that’s even remotely fair to ask that question," Pruitt said, suggesting that members of Congress rent similar rooms near Capitol Hill too.
If so, Henry responded, "You're doing the same thing they did. If they did it, it's OK for you."
Furrowing his brow, Pruitt replied: "I didn't say that."
Henry even dove into Pruitt's disparaging comments about then-candidate Trump during the 2016 race and his hiring of an Oklahoma banker banned from the banking business to oversee the EPA's Superfund program.
However, the coup-de-grâce came hours later. On Fox News and elsewhere, Pruitt defended his $50-a-night lease by citing a March 30 memo that determined the rental agreement did not violate any federal gift rules.
While Pruitt was touring the conservative outlets, the EPA's top ethics official, Kevin Minoli, was in the process of writing a new memo. In late breaking news Wednesday night, Minoli wrote that he didn't have all the facts when he reached that conclusion.
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— Drip, drip, drip: As mentioned above, a new wrinkle to Pruitt's living arrangement now includes a month-long absence from the District. After he moved out of the Capitol condo where he paid $50 a night last year, it appears Pruitt did not have a fixed address in Washington for a month, The Post's Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. “Pruitt’s decision not to maintain a fixed address in the city where he was leading a major federal agency underscores how he has operated during his tenure — crisscrossing the country and parts of the world to tout the president’s agenda but regularly returning to Oklahoma, often at taxpayer expense,” they write.
— Adding to the bad optics, Samantha Dravis, a longtime adviser who serves as senior counsel and associate administrator in EPA’s Office of Policy, resigned last week to work in the private sector, Juliet and Brady first report. "Her decision to leave is unrelated to Pruitt’s recent ethics woes, according to several agency officials with firsthand knowledge of the matter," they write. "But it comes at a time when he is relying on an increasingly narrow set of advisers to navigate decision-making."
— Seen at EPA headquarters: A piece of paper taped to an elevator saying "EPA ... home of the swamp monster" according to E&E News, in an apparent reference to Pruitt. "People are wagering how long he's going to last. ... I've had that conversation in the last two days with five different people," one employee told the publication.
— Context on the Capitol Hill condo: Critics have called Pruitt’s previous living arrangement a “sweetheart deal," and this Washingtonian story in part explains why. The magazine rounded up some Airbnb listings of other Capitol Hill lodgings you can find for around $50 a night. Hint: one room has a bunk bed.
— Dems demand answers: Democratic Sens. Tom Udall (N.M.), Brian Schatz (Hawaii), and Reps. Don Beyer (Va.) and Ted Lieu (Calif.) sent a letter to Pruitt saying they were “very concerned” about recent reports. “We believe it is imperative that you answer questions fully and transparently regarding the circumstances of your rental agreement and its approval,” they wrote in the letter, which included several questions the lawmakers want answered by April 17.
Meanwhile, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in his own letter said he wants to know more about Pruitt's trip in December to Morocco to promote U.S. natural gas exports, which normally falls into the Energy Department's portfolio. "We still do not know the full extent of your financial and political ties to the oil and gas industry, which would stand to benefit from the opening up of new markets for natural gas produced in the U.S.," Whitehouse wrote.
Meanwhile, one GOP senator came to Pruitt's defense Thursday morning: ".@EPAScottPruitt is likely the bravest and most conservative member of Trump's cabinet," Rand Paul (R-Ky.) tweeted.
— Not that Gorsuch, the other Gorsuch: Pruitt’s tenure in the Trump administration is bringing back memories of Anne Gorsuch Burford, the first ever EPA administrator who served under President Ronald Reagan (and who is, as it happens, mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch). “The parallels between Pruitt and Gorsuch have been noted from the beginning — and they’re growing in ways Pruitt is unlikely to enjoy,” The Post’s Chris Mooney writes, alluding to the fact Gorsuch eventually was forced to step down over potential corruption involving the Superfund program. “Granted, crucial differences remain: The Gorsuch-era scandals were certainly more sweeping than anything we’ve seen so far. And although Gorsuch ultimately lost the support of Congress and the president who appointed her, Pruitt, for now, seems to mostly maintain both.”
— In other EPA news, there is some actual new policy work coming out of the agency. Pruitt has taken control of key provisions in the Clean Water Act, according to a leaked memo reported by CNN. In a new directive Pruitt noted he will make final decisions about stream, pond and wetland preservation. “The move appears to change the approval process to lessen the role of EPA employees and scientists when it comes to evaluating whether a project has a significant negative environmental impact on waterways or wetlands,” CNN reports.
— And elsewhere concerning the federal government, the New York Times Magazine has a new profile out about Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), powerful chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who is "one of the few Republicans who has gone toe-to-toe with the president — and thrived." The profile describes how Murkowski said she "did not sleep the night the news broke" about Trump's "Hollywood Access" tape "because she was worrying about what it all meant for the country’s leadership." Then when Trump won, she made the most of it since a Republican president could finally make possible drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of her long-sought goals.
— River rising: New research suggests that the Lower Mississippi River is flooding more than it has in the last 500 years, and human interventions such as levees and other structures may have made it worse. Mooney reports “the study finds that the risk of the proverbial ‘100 year flood’ has increased by 20 percent in the past 500 years, and most of the cause is the engineering of the river.”
—The last mile: In Puerto Rico, more than six months after Hurricane Maria hit, there’s still a group of communities without power, The Post’s Arelis R. Hernández reports. “Many residents report that having been without power for so long has led them to lose faith in the state-owned power company and, ultimately, the island’s government,” she writes. And as more than 1,200 FEMA-provided generators still provide the primary power source for many of the island's hospitals, police and fire stations, correctional facilities and water pumps, residents are wary that another hurricane season is just months away.
— A primer on “phenological mismatch:" As the changing climate causes a springtime delay, there’s an effect on the species that rely on environmental cues. Such an adjustment has a term, “phenological mismatch,” and the New York Times reports scientists are “still trying to understand exactly how such mismatches — like the blooming of a flower before its pollinator emerges — might affect ecosystems.”
— A new post-Harvey rule: The Houston City Council approved a rule on Wednesday to ensure new homes and other buildings in the city’s flood plains will be elevated high enough off the ground to avoid floodwaters. “The regulation comes more than seven months after Hurricane Harvey flooded thousands of homes in the nation’s fourth-largest city, which has long had a culture that’s resistant to regulation and remains the only major U.S. city without zoning,” the Associated Press reports. “City officials say that of the homes in Houston’s flood plains that were damaged by Harvey, more than 80 percent could have been protected had they been built at the height required in the new regulation.”
— Corn wars: Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) is calling out the EPA for granting an exemption to a major refiner Andeavor from complying with the Renewable Fuel Standard. “Giving big corporations like Andeavor a free pass when other companies are required to follow the law of the land isn’t just unfair, it may be illegal,” Grassley said in a statement, per CQ News. “There are legitimate questions being raised about whether EPA is following the law with these exemptions… The public deserves transparency about this secret waiver and I expect EPA to be forthcoming.”
— Cyberattack shows vulnerability of gas pipelines: "A cyberattack on a shared data network forced four of the nation’s natural-gas pipeline operators to temporarily shut down computer communications with their customers over the last week," writes Clifford Krauss in the New York Times. "The attack highlighted the potential vulnerability of the nation’s energy system, cyberexperts say. Beyond consumer and business data — energy companies possess much proprietary information about their holdings, trading strategies and exploration and production technologies — the increasing dependence of pipeline infrastructure on digital systems makes them a particularly ripe target. Control valves, pressure monitors and other equipment connected to wireless networks are vital to daily functions of everything from refineries to oil wells."
- The Women’s Council on Energy and the Environment forum on women on energy and environment boards.
- The Nuclear Regulatory Commission meeting with advisory committee on reactor safeguards.
- The National Capital Region Water Resources Symposium will be held on Friday.
- The Stimson Center and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences holds a seminar on nuclear waste solutions on Friday.
— This bear is all of us: The Glacier National Park has kept a live webcam on a black bear’s den in a cottonwood tree for the last two weeks, as one very groggy bear seems to slowly come out of hibernation.