As Trump publicly backs EPA chief, Pruitt's job imperiled by expanding ethics issues

Washington Post

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt fought for his job Thursday, facing a new barrage of allegations about issues ranging from his past housing arrangement and first-class travel to the reassignment of senior staff who criticized how he was spending taxpayer funds.

Even as President Donald Trump repeatedly expressed his support for Pruitt in public, top White House aides began to escalate their disapproval, suggesting the administrator has mischaracterized his role in boosting the salaries of two employees. On Thursday evening, two EPA officials confirmed that Pruitt endorsed the idea last month of giving substantial raises to senior counsel Sarah Greenwalt and scheduling and advance director Millan Hupp - although he did not carry out the pay raise himself.

And Pruitt's decision to ignore White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's warnings to be more cautious about giving public interviews only complicated his standing with many of Trump's key aides.

Those officials' sense of unease continued to escalate over the course of a single day, after the EPA's lead ethics official issued a memo saying that he lacked important facts when he concluded that Pruitt's rental lease with a lobbyist last year did not violate federal gift rules. It also emerged that Pruitt was late with some of his rent payments for a room in that Capitol Hill condo.

A White House spokesman offered Pruitt little reassurance.

"We all serve at the pleasure of the president," Hogan Gidley told reporters Thursday. "You guys know that. And when he's not pleased, you'll know it."

Trump has resisted calls from many top advisers to oust Pruitt but has complained privately about the EPA chief for days, advisers said.

Publicly, however, the president went out of his way to praise Pruitt. Making a rare appearance in the press cabin of Air Force One on a return flight from West Virginia on Thursday, Trump remarked, "He's been very courageous . . . I can tell you at EPA he's done a fantastic job."

Pruitt traveled to the state where he grew up to meet with Kentucky air-quality regulators, business leaders and elected officials, saying in a statement that the EPA "continues its work to enhance both environmental protections and economic growth."

At EPA headquarters, top aides strategized about how to protect Pruitt's job even as they put the final touches on an executive order that would change the way the federal government ensures that states are meeting national air pollution standards.

In a sign of Pruitt's split-screen existence, according to administration officials briefed on the matter, Trump on Friday plans to sign the directive expediting air- quality permits. Yet the White House canceled an announcement event where the two were to appear together.

Several congressional Republicans, as well as some governors, conservative groups and pundits, rallied to Pruitt's side. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas both publicly backed him Thursday, as did governors Matt Bevin, Ky., and Phil Bryant, Miss. Bevin tweeted that the administrator should "ignore the nattering nabobs of negativism," invoking a phrase that Vice President Spiro Agnew used in 1969 while blasting the media.

Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh delivered an on-air defense of Pruitt, and groups such as FreedomWorks and the Federalist Society expressed their support.

Still, the sharp focus on Pruitt's housing arrangement, his premium-class travel both domestically and abroad and those aides' raises has only further roiled an inner circle already under stress.

Samantha Dravis, a longtime adviser who serves as senior counsel and associate administrator in the EPA's Office of Policy, submitted her resignation last week to work in the private sector. Her decision to leave is unrelated to Pruitt's recent ethics woes, according to several agency officials with firsthand knowledge of the matter. But it comes at a time when Pruitt is relying on an increasingly narrow set of advisers to make decisions.

The Washington Post confirmed that three EPA officials - Kevin Chmielewski, former deputy chief of staff for operations; John Reeder, former deputy chief of staff; and Special Agent Eric Weese - left or were reassigned after raising concerns about how Pruitt and his deputies operated. Chmielewski is on leave without pay, Reeder is on an "executive in residence" fellowship at American University, and Weese is no longer the head of Pruitt's security detail.

Weese could not be reached for comment; Chmielewski and Reeder have declined to comment. Reeder is the husband of a Washington Post reporter, Carol Leonnig.

The staff moves were first reported by the New York Times, which also named two other individuals sidelined or forced to take leave after questioning how money was being spent at the EPA. In an emailed statement Thursday, agency spokesman Jahan Wilcox called them "a group of disgruntled employees who have either been dismissed or reassigned."

Pruitt spoke at length during a Fox News interview about his role in Greenwalt and Hupp getting raises of 52 percent and 33 percent respectively under an unusual maneuver involving their reappointment through a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

In the interview Wednesday, Pruitt implied he was not involved in those decisions.

"I found out this yesterday and I corrected the action, and we are in the process of finding out how it took place and correcting that going forward," he told Ed Henry.

But two EPA officials and a White House official told The Post that the administrator instructed staff to award substantial pay boosts to both women, who had worked in different roles for him in Oklahoma.

Questions surrounding Pruitt's public account of his management decisions have been sharpened by recent revelations about his unusual rental arrangement last year.

The lease provided for the use of a single room, stating that "all other space is controlled by the landlord." But several EPA officials have confirmed that Pruitt's adult daughter stayed in a second bedroom for a period when she was working at the White House.

Kevin Minoli, the EPA's principal deputy general counsel, had written in a March 30 memo that Pruitt's lease with condo co-owner Vicki Hart - for $50 a night, charged only when he stayed there - did not constitute a gift because that rate for 30 consecutive days would have equated to a monthly rent of $1,500. Minoli described that as "a reasonable market value."

Yet in a new memo, which was obtained by the Campaign Legal Center and first reported by CNN, Minoli emphasized that he evaluated the terms of the lease only and not activities the document did not cover.

"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."

He also clarified that he did not examine whether Pruitt's arrangement violated the impartiality rule, which would have prohibited the administrator from having any dealings with other employees at Vicki Hart's lobbying firm.

Separately, Minoli's colleague, Justina Fugh, a senior ethics attorney and agency veteran, said she learned of Pruitt's unusual housing arrangement late last week when political aides called her while she was at the movies, told her the outlines of the lease and asked her for a quick ruling. She initially gave her approval based on the specifics they shared.

Only later did she learn other details from news reports.

"What they gave me was not the full picture . . . I was just too credulous," Fugh said Thursday. "Advice that's given by an ethics official is only as good as the information that's provided."

The rental deal has come under intense scrutiny because Hart's husband, J. Steven Hart, is chairman of the firm Williams & Jensen, which lobbies on energy issues along with other matters.

A copy of the lease, attached to Minoli's most recent memo, showed that Steven Hart's name had been scribbled out as the legal representative and his wife's name handwritten in. According to a senior administration official, Vicki Hart made the change.

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