This post has been updated.
The two main defenses of Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt's questionable condo lease suffered significant blows late Wednesday. And, making matters worse, the White House doesn't quite sound firmly committed to Pruitt.
Since his $50-per-night, vacation-style rental agreement with the wife of an energy lobbyist was publicized, Pruitt's defenders have focused on two things:
- That an ethics official at the EPA supposedly signed off on the deal, and ...
- That the lobbyist, Steven J. Hart, didn't have business before the EPA and received no official actions in return. “Mr. Hart has no clients that had business before this agency,” Pruitt told Fox News on Wednesday.
Both of those have now been undermined.
That same ethics official has now issued a new memo making clear that his previous evaluation of Pruitt's lease did not include all relevant information and wasn't a complete approval. The new memo from Kevin Minoli notes that reports indicate Pruitt apparently had access to other parts of the house, rather than just the room he was renting. Pruitt reportedly had his daughter stay at the condo.
“Some have raised questions whether the actual use of the space was consistent with the terms of the lease,” Minoli wrote. “Evaluating those questions would have required factual information that was not before us and the Review does not address those questions.”
Minoli's new memo also clarifies that his previous memo addressed only whether the lease was at fair market value; it did not, he emphasized, take into account whether renting from the wife of an energy lobbyist would violate ethics rules. Pruitt told Fox on Wednesday that “the ethics officials looked at the lease and the terms to determine whether it was ethical or not.” The ethics official is now saying that's simply not the case.
Maybe the most interesting discovery in Minoli's new memo, though, is this: The lobbyist's name, Steven J. Hart, appears on the lease as the legal representative of the landlord, but it is crossed out and replaced with his wife's name, Vicki Hart. The Post's Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report that a senior administration official said Vicki Hart made the change, and a spokesman for the Harts, Ryan Williams, confirmed that to The Fix.
But if renting from a lobbyist is no big deal, why make the change? Vicki Hart making the change suggests it may not have been done in response to Pruitt's ethical concerns. (Her name also appears elsewhere in the documentation as the landlord.) But Pruitt still signed a lease with an energy lobbyist's name crossed out. And that can't help but raise some more red flags.
Pruitt, of course, is suggesting that doesn't even matter since Steven Hart technically didn't have business before the EPA. But even that ignores the fact that EPA decisions undoubtedly could have affected Steven Hart's clients, which include the behemoth Exxon Mobil. Whether he was specifically lobbying on something doesn't mean Hart and his clients can't benefit.
And perhaps as troubling for Pruitt is that, whatever White House officials have told him behind closed doors, their public comments don't seem to be particularly committed to him.
Asked whether he still supported Pruitt, Trump said Tuesday, “I hope he's going to be great.” (“Hope.") Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked Wednesday whether Trump was okay with Pruitt's behavior, and she said, “The president is not” and, “We’re reviewing the situation.” Another White House spokesman, Hogan Gidley, said Thursday, “I can't speak to the future of Scott Pruitt.”
Update: Trump said Thursday, shortly after Gidley's comments, that he had confidence in Pruitt. So who knows?
It's entirely possible Trump will decide this is a battle worth fighting and that nefarious sources are trying to take Pruitt down. That could be a compelling argument, given that Pruitt and his doubt of man-made climate change stirs liberal hatred more than just about any other Cabinet-level official in the Trump administration, save perhaps Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
But Pruitt's situation seems to keep getting worse, and his best defenses are starting to fall apart, thanks to the ethics official whose memo had supposedly vindicated Pruitt.
The White House will have to decide at some point how much it's willing to invest in someone who clearly wasn't terribly careful about ethics — to the point where he would sign a lease with the wife of a lobbyist on which the name of the lobbyist is crossed out.