Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a 2016 interview that "Donald Trump in the White House would be more abusive to the Constitution than Barack Obama," according to an audio recording released Tuesday by an advocacy group, prompting questions as he faced the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee for the first time since taking office.
The radio interview with "The Pat Campbell Show" in Tulsa took place on Feb. 4, 2016, at a time when Pruitt — then Oklahoma's attorney general — was serving as a policy adviser to GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush. Asked whether he supported Trump as a presidential candidate, Pruitt replied, "No."
"I believe that Donald Trump in the White House would be more abusive to the Constitution than Barack Obama — and that's saying a lot," he said. He later added, "I really believe he would use a blunt instrument. This president at least tries to nuance his unlawfulness."
Pruitt added that he feared Trump, if elected would "use executive power to confront Congress in a way that is truly unconstitutional." He also agreed with Campbell's description of Trump as "dangerous" and "a bully."
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., on Tuesday pressed Pruitt on the newly released comments, which were posted on the website of the watchdog group Documented. The group describes itself as an organization that investigates "how corporations manipulate public policy that harms our environment, communities and democracy."
Asked he recalled the statements, Pruitt said, "I don't, senator. And I don't echo that today at all."
"I bet not," Whitehouse responded.
Minutes after the hearing ended, the EPA sent out a statement from Pruitt that lavished praise on his boss.
"After meeting him, and now having the honor of working for him, it is abundantly clear that President Trump is the most consequential leader of our time," Pruitt said in the statement. "No one has done more to advance the rule of law than President Trump. The President has liberated our country from the political class and given America back to the people."
Pruitt came to know the president personally after Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton nine months later. He met with him at New York's Trump Tower during the transition and has repeatedly praised Trump since, citing his commitment to bolstering the U.S. economy and his willingness to take decisive action to roll back what both men see as the legal overreaches of the Obama administration.
Pruitt is hardly the only ally to have criticized candidate Trump during the 2016 campaign. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for example, bashed Trump's rhetoric and lack of experience but has emerged as one of his most reliable voices in Congress.
Even another top agency nominee, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, worked as a volunteer consultant for the campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and took online swipes at Trump. In his six-point critique on Facebook in March 2016, Wheeler laid out a skepticism of Trump's character, business acumen and viability as a candidate that many elected GOP officials and "establishment" Republicans shared at the time. But that criticism ultimately did not deter Wheeler from being nominated for a top agency post.
Tuesday's hearing was Pruitt's first visit to testify before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee since he was confirmed nearly a year ago. The hearing marked only the second appearance before a congressional oversight panel Pruitt has made as the head of EPA.
Democrats spent their time criticizing Pruitt for the regulatory rollbacks he has set in motion at the agency, accusing him of failing to protect the health of ordinary citizens and instead carrying out the wish list of regulated industries.
They pressed him about whether the Trump administration might seek to reverse the EPA's 2009 finding that greenhouse-gas emissions endanger public health and welfare. (He said the agency had not yet made a decision on that). They asked whether he opposes California's federal waiver to adopt its own vehicle emissions standards. (He said that "federalism doesn't mean that one state can dictate to the rest of the country.") They inquired about whether Pruitt still plans to pursue a formal government effort to challenge the long-standing scientific consensus on climate change, known as a "red team/blue team" exercise. ("This is still under consideration," he said.)
Meanwhile, Republicans on the committee had almost universal praise for Pruitt, saying he has lifted the regulatory burden placed on companies by the Obama administration.
"Scott Pruitt's policies at the helm of EPA likely have protected more jobs and promoted more job growth than any other EPA administrator in history," said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a longtime critic of the EPA and an ally of Pruitt's, came to his defense after one round of intense questioning from committee Democrats.
"I get the impression they don't like you," Inhofe said. "Well, anyway, you're doing a great job."