Even political aides are tired of the chief ‘constantly putting himself first,’ one former agency official said.
Scott Pruitt may have survived his testimony on Capitol Hill, but he’s coming back to a further enraged and demoralized Environmental Protection Agency staff.
Several current and former EPA officials and other people close to the agency said Pruitt did himself no favors with his congressional testimony Thursday, in which he blamed his aides for installing a $43,000 privacy booth in his office and approving more than $100,000 in first-class flights that he took last year. Pruitt also denied knowing key details about raises that his top staff received last year. And he declined to defend his former policy chief against Democrats’ accusations that she had failed to show up for work for three months, even though she and Pruitt had been photographed attending the same meeting during the period in question.
In conversations with 11 people who know the atmosphere inside EPA, including Republican political appointees, a handful said his refusal to grovel may have pleased President Donald Trump. But others said his strategy was appalling to the current and former staffers who found themselves thrown under the bus.
“I think his credibility is damaged, and whether or not he gets fired by a tweet isn’t going to diminish the fact that his credibility has been seriously damaged by all of this,” one person close to the administration told POLITICO. “It shows a real lack of leadership that he did not defend, or blamed, his staff. These are the people that he’s asking for loyalty from. These are the people that are defending him. He’s not returning the favor. That’s not leadership.”
A current EPA official said Friday that employees are veering between “despair” and “embarrassment,” and Pruitt’s televised performance did not help.
“I will tell you, it did not go unnoticed from people who watched the hearing that he did not take responsibility on the policy pieces” of the testimony, the official said. “It was not lost on us on the stuff we know about that he used very careful language, he was parsing his words, that some might say he did not speak the whole truth.”
One former EPA official said even political aides are “sick of Pruitt constantly putting himself first,” and “putting himself before the president’s agenda.”
“He’s rarely been interested in selling regulatory reform as improving Americans’ lives, and is far more interested in saving his political career,” the former official said.
But Trump has shown no signs of abandoning his EPA chief, who has won the strong backing of conservative groups with his efforts to erase Obama-era environmental regulations. So far, that has outweighed the anger of White House staff members and exasperation of key Republican lawmakers at Pruitt’s series of controversies over luxe travel, extensive security, a below-market D.C. condo rental from a lobbyist and history of questionable real estate deals in his native Oklahoma.
A senior EPA official said Pruitt’s strategy of fighting the allegations was designed to appeal to Trump, who disdains members of his team who appear weak on television.
“They like fighters no matter what,” the official said. “No matter what, fight. That’s what we’ve been conditioned to.”
The official predicted that the White House takeaway from the hours of hearings would be that Republican lawmakers stood with Pruitt, while Democrats squandered their opportunity by spending too much time criticizing Pruitt’s deregulatory agenda — which Trump supports — rather than hitting him for the ethics issues.
“Any audience would say the White House saw a Republican bench entirely supportive of him,” the EPA source said. “On the Democrat side, the White House also saw Democrats who used half their time to criticize policies he’s doing that the White House likes. If they wanted to land punches, why do you ask about these policies? That’s not going to do it for you.”
Pruitt ally Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) took that message from Thursday’s hearings, despite saying earlier in the week that he was troubled by some recent allegations about the EPA leader’s past dealings in Oklahoma. “After a full day of mudslinging and partisan questioning from the Democratic members of the committees, it is clear that the only fault they could find with Scott Pruitt is that he’s successfully ending the EPA’s history of overreach and over-regulation,” Inhofe said in a statement Friday.
Still, the senior EPA official said, Pruitt’s relatively good day in Congress could be “washed away” if his inconsistencies about what he knew about the raises generates a steady narrative that he lied to the White House, as at least one CNN pundit alleged.
And until Trump weighs in, the tension around Pruitt at EPA will remain high.
“There needs to be a halt to this because it’s exhausting,” the same official said.
Pruitt also still faces multiple investigations inside the executive branch and on Capitol Hill. On Friday, for example, the agency was due to deliver a “batch of documents” to the staff of House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who is leading one of the probes.
Departed EPA aides who have said Pruitt didn’t tolerate internal criticism of his spending and secrecy say current staffers still fear they’ll be similarly swept up in the scandals — but won’t be able to find jobs if they quit now and gain a reputation for disloyalty.
“They’re trying to do the best they can in a toxic environment,” one former staffer said. “You cannot express any idea that might be misconstrued as a political attack on Pruitt or any policy issues, so people just do what they’re told. They’re professional. … They don’t want to get caught in an undertow.”
Another former EPA official has been getting phone calls from staffers who are frustrated by the controversies but keeping their heads down.
“Everyone in the building wants to come out and say something … but as soon as they say something, they’re out of a job,” that person said.
Not everyone in the agency was upset that Pruitt pinned many of his controversies on his staff Thursday, after giving an opening statement in the House in which he confessed that his first year on the job had been “a learning process.”
“When he was putting it on staff, that’s the reality of it,” one current EPA political appointee said. “Sure, he’s the administrator; sure, he’s the head of the agency. That doesn’t mean he was aware of the $40,000. He asked for a secure phone line and the next thing you know it turned into a secure phone booth. … Overall, I think his staff continue to stand beside him today and will continue to do that.”
In his testimony, Pruitt said he had never asked for a $43,000 secure phone booth — only “access to secure communication” — or biometric locks for his office, and he said his security staffers made the call for him to fly first-class to avoid possible threats from other passengers. He said he had authorized his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, to give raises to his top staff but had no idea that they were circumventing disapproval from the White House. And he chose not to defend his former policy chief against allegations from Democratic lawmakers that she was not in the office for months, even though an EPA spokesman had dismissed the accusations as “baseless and absurd.”
A second political appointee said Pruitt didn’t break any new ground with his defenses and that controversies dogging him had been “all blown out of context.”
The person called Pruitt a “disruptor” and said “folks don’t like that aggressive style.”
“Administrator Pruitt speaks for a certain aspect of the Trump administration conservative movement,” the appointee said.
Eric Wolff and Anthony Adragna contributed to this report.