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5 takeaways from Scott Pruitt’s grilling in Congress

Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, tried to talk about anything other than his ethics issues in front of Congress April 26. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

If he was fighting to keep his job before Thursday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt should really be worried after Thursday.

Pruitt testified before Congress amid a wave of spending and conflict-of-interest scandals. He acknowledged knowing about raises for aides that the White House had nixed, repeatedly tried to put blame for questionable spending and travel on others in his agency, and was attacked by Democrats as unfit for public office. This all comes as the White House appears to be backing off its support for Pruitt.

But Pruitt wasn’t without friends. Conservative Republicans on the House’s energy committee praised Pruitt for his deregulation efforts.

Here are five takeaways from Pruitt’s appearance before Congress on Thursday that could shed light on whether he keeps his job:

1. He admitted to knowing about raises for two favorite aides

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on April 26 told Congress he was aware of raises for two EPA staffers, contradicting his earlier statements. (Video: Reuters)

This is significant for two reasons:

  1. The White House didn’t want him to give out those raises, which were substantial. But the two aides ended up getting them anyway via an unusual use of a little-known provision in the Safe Water Drinking Act. 
  2. Pruitt went on Fox News and implied he didn’t know about the raises: “I found out this yesterday, and I corrected the action,” he said.

Now that Pruitt is under oath before Congress, his story is slightly altered. Pruitt said he didn’t know the details about the raises — like how much they were for or the mechanism by which his aides got them.

But after some teeth-pulling by Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), Pruitt acknowledged that he delegated his chief of staff to give those raises — though he used passive language like, “Those were delegated to Mr. Jackson” to do it.

Defying the White House to give the raises is probably not a good look for Pruitt if he wants to keep his job. At least until now, Pruitt has claimed he wasn’t the one who did it. But what happens to Pruitt now that he has acknowledged playing a key role in defying the White House?

The White House is abandoning Scott Pruitt

2. Pruitt keeps passing the blame

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt on April 26 told Congress that career EPA officials approved a $43,000 soundproof phone booth. (Video: Reuters)

Pruitt said in his opening statement that he takes responsibility for how the agency is run. But he was quick to blame others for the many headlines coming out of the EPA.

The raises to his aides? Pruitt only nominally knew about it.

Installing a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office? Pruitt didn’t approve that. “Career individuals” did. (Read: The same people whom Trump and his allies have often accused of leading a “deep state” conspiracy against them.)

Flying first class? It’s not illegal, and “I’ve since made changes.”

The room in a Capitol Hill condo he rented for $50 a night last year, which was co-owned by the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist? Pruitt pointed to an EPA lawyer who signed off on it, failing to mention that the lawyer has since said he didn’t have all of the information when he cleared this decision.

The result, as Democrats were quick to point out, is that Pruitt either looks as if he’s finding a scapegoat for his mistakes, or that any number of ethically questionable actions are taking place around him and he has no idea.

3. Republicans are not ready to give up on Pruitt, even as the White House signals it might be

At least four Republicans in Congress have called on Pruitt to resign. More have called for greater scrutiny of his management.

But it’s a very different reality among most of the Republicans on the House committee that oversees Pruitt’s agency. Republican lawmakers questioning Pruitt called the allegations a distraction, accused Democrats of trying to kneecap the Trump administration by going after one of its successful deregulators and, when they did ask about the alleged ethics improprieties, threw him softballs.

“If you can’t make the policies in Washington, you attack the personality,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), “and that's what’s happening to you.”

If Pruitt does stay in the job, these Republicans will be useful allies.

IF Pruitt stays in the job. With each passing day and each passing headline, it sounds more and more as though the president is considering firing Pruitt.

Trump has publicly praised him, but his spokesmen are sounding a different note. “We all serve at the pleasure of the president,” deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley told reporters Thursday when asked if Pruitt’s job is safe. “You guys know that. And when he’s not pleased, you’ll know it.”

4. Here’s why Pruitt still has his job

Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.) on April 26 said the focus on EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s ethics issues is a “classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism." (Video: Reuters)

“There's hope now.” That was Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.) describing the impact of the EPA’s rollback of regulations on the fossil fuel industry on his state’s economy. “People in the fossil fuel industry could see the deterioration,” he said. “There is some hope we are seeing the economy start to rebound, thanks to you and the administration taking this fight on.”

That, in a nutshell, is why Pruitt still has his job after two months of nonstop headlines about ethical problems at his agency. One of Trump’s biggest boasts to his base is how his administration has slashed Obama-era regulations on pollution laws, public lands protections and fuel-efficiency standards. And much of that stemmed from Pruitt.

Congressional leaders in West Virginia — the state that gave Trump one of his biggest victory margins in the 2016 presidential election — are very happy with Pruitt, headlines be damned.

5. Democrats think Pruitt is a disaster

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) on April 26 said Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt would be “long gone” in any other administration. (Video: Reuters)

This isn’t a revelation, but it’s worth noting just how fiercely Democrats are attacking Pruitt. They said he is unfit to lead, an embarrassment to the president, an untrustworthy steward of taxpayer dollars and someone who is making it harder for children and seniors with asthma to breathe so he can “enrich” his “corporate friends.”

“If I were the president, I wouldn’t want your help,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “I would just get rid of you.”

It’s true that Pruitt is an easy target for Democrats. Even before all the ethics drama, Pruitt stood for everything Democrats dislike: As attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt was one of the leading players in suing President Barack Obama’s administration. In the Trump administration, he has played a major role in erasing Obama's environmental legacy. He was a big advocate for Trump to exit the landmark Paris climate agreement.

But it's important to note that Pruitt's management style is rankling Republicans, too. The Washington Post’s congressional team tallied these concerns about Pruitt from GOP senators this week:

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.): “Let’s face it, what you hear is troubling.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine): “The ethical allegations against him make it very difficult for the department to focus on its mission and are a distraction.”

Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.): “Some of his behavior has hurt the president of the United States. He’s hurt the president’s credibility, he’s hurt the credibility of all of us, and it’d be way cooler if he would behave.”

In other words, Pruitt's problems are bipartisan, and after Thursday, the number of his detractors may be growing.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on April 26 told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment he has “nothing to hide." (Video: Reuters)