For weeks, White House spokesmen have praised Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt's job performance and deflected questions about his ethical missteps. Things changed Wednesday, as White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her deputy, Hogan Gidley, withheld compliments and told reporters that Pruitt will have to answer for his actions.
This was Sanders's exchange with The Washington Post's Ashley Parker during an afternoon media briefing:
PARKER: Sarah, Scott Pruitt lived for below-market rent in a Capitol Hill rowhouse owned by an energy industry lobbyist. He reportedly directed staff to give raises to top aides and then obfuscated about it. He spent over $150,000 — of taxpayer dollars — on first-class travel. And he reportedly once even tried to get his security detail to use their sirens so he could get to a reservation at Le Diplomate, among other alleged ethical lapses. I know you said yesterday you were looking at reports about him, but can you sort of explain why he still has a job in the president's Cabinet and also how his behavior is in keeping with the values of draining the swamp?
SANDERS: Again, we're evaluating these concerns, and we expect the EPA administrator to answer for them, and we'll keep you posted.
That's a rather chilly nondefense.
As recently as Monday, when she was asked about calls by some Republicans for Pruitt to step down, Sanders said: “Administrator Pruitt has done a good job of implementing the president's policies, particularly on deregulation, making the United States less energy-dependent and becoming more energy independent. Those are good things. However, the other things certainly are something that we're monitoring and looking at, and I'll keep you posted.”
Two days later, the kudos for Pruitt's “good job” were gone — as was Pruitt's name. Sanders referred to him only as “the EPA administrator” on Wednesday. The White House's new message is that Pruitt deserves the scrutiny he is getting.
On NPR earlier in the day, Gidley said, “I can tell you that the president and the White House are aware of these issues and these stories, that they raise some serious concerns, there's no question about that.”
Gidley added that “the EPA and, quite frankly, Mr. Pruitt, are going to have to answer those questions in short order.”
Pruitt's fate might not be sealed yet. The White House appears open to the possibility that he will satisfactorily answer critics or that bad headlines will fade away, enabling him to remain on the job. But the White House appears to be done fighting for him in the press. Pruitt is on his own.