Political News

Chief of Staff Advised a Resistant Trump to Fire EPA Chief

Posted April 6, 2018 11:46 p.m. EDT
Updated April 6, 2018 11:50 p.m. EDT

John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, told President Donald Trump last week that Scott Pruitt, the embattled administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, needed to go following damaging allegations about ethical infractions and spending irregularities, according to two officials briefed about the conversation.

But Trump, who is personally fond of Pruitt and sees him as a crucial ally in his effort to roll back environmental rules, has resisted firing him, disregarding warnings that the drumbeat of negative headlines about the administrator has grown unsustainable, and that more embarrassing revelations could surface.

White House officials said Friday that Trump continues to believe that Pruitt has been effective in his role, and stressed that it was up to the president alone to decide his fate.

“No one other than the president has the authority to hire and fire,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, told reporters. “The president feels that the administrator has done a good job at EPA.”

She said the White House, which has been conducting an internal investigation into Pruitt’s conduct, was “continuing to review any of the concerns that we have.”

Earlier, in a brief interview, Sanders said that Pruitt’s success in achieving items on the president’s agenda — including rolling back a large number of environmental regulations — may weigh heavily as a counterbalance to allegations that he misused taxpayer dollars.

“He likes the work product,” she said of Trump.

Conservatives have, for the most, part rallied around Pruitt, but late Friday saw the first signs of a fissure.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has started to investigate Pruitt’s condo deal, an aide to the committee confirmed.

Gowdy is already investigating Pruitt’s first-class travel. This week, the committee was provided two memos from the EPA’s designated ethics official related to the administrator’s living arrangements, the aide said.

Asked about Pruitt at an event on Friday evening, Gowdy said, “I don’t have a lot of patience for that kind of stuff. You’ve got to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars,” according to a video an activist took of the interaction that was distributed by Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.

Pruitt has been dogged by a series of scandals in recent weeks, including revelations that he rented a condominium co-owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist for $50 per night; that he spent more than $100,000 on taxpayer-funded first-class travel, which the EPA has argued was necessary because of security concerns; and that the agency sidelined or demoted at least five high-ranking agency employees who had raised questions about his spending.

The Wall Street Journal first reported on Kelly’s unheeded advice to Trump, which marked the escalation of a quiet but intense turn in the West Wing against Pruitt. Privately, many senior White House aides have become infuriated with the EPA chief and exasperated with his ethical lapses, believing that it is only a matter of time before his special standing with the president wears thin. But Trump’s decision to keep Pruitt in his job over the counsel of his chief of staff also raised new questions about Kelly’s power in the West Wing. It was only two months ago that Trump was musing privately about replacing Kelly in the aftermath of the scandal surrounding Rob Porter, Trump’s staff secretary, who resigned under pressure after it emerged that he had faced allegations of spousal abuse by two former wives.

In recent days, Trump has appeared determined to do things his own way, and he has conducted a purge of people in his administration who had clashed with him, including Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser whose last day at the White House was Friday.

But Trump regards Pruitt warmly, and — for now — has continued to back him.

“I think he’s done a fantastic job at EPA,” Trump told reporters on Air Force One on Thursday as he returned to Washington from an event in West Virginia. “I think he’ll be fine.”

On Friday, Trump pushed back against news reports that he had considered replacing Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, with Pruitt, saying in a tweet that his EPA chief “is doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege.”

That came hours before yet another embarrassing revelation Friday afternoon, when Politico reported that the lobbyists who owned the condominium Pruitt paid $50 a night to rent had leased the space to him for only six weeks, and became frustrated when he declined for months to leave, eventually pushing him out and changing the locks.

The president, who dislikes direct personal confrontations, has been known to change his mind and tone rapidly when it comes to personnel decisions as events unfold and he gauges the reaction in the news media and the potential for damage to his own reputation. But his aides also point out that Trump relishes doing things his own way and bristles against being told he must adhere to certain conventions, even when failing to do so may mean enduring political fallout.

In interviews in recent days with conservative news outlets including Fox News and the Washington Examiner, Pruitt pushed back hard against accusations that his actions were unethical. In an interview with Fox News, he described his living arrangement as an “Airbnb situation,” and said EPA’s ethics office had signed off on it.

The ethics office ruled that Pruitt’s condo rental did not violate the agency’s rules. A later memo released this week said the office did not have all the facts about the rental when it made its initial ruling, including reports that Pruitt’s daughter, McKenna Pruitt, lived at the apartment when she was a White House intern.

Asked by Fox whether renting a room from a Washington lobbyist violated Trump’s credo of draining the swamp, Pruitt replied, “I don’t even think that’s even remotely fair to ask that question.”

Trump, an avid Fox viewer who puts great stock in TV performances, did not appear to think much of Pruitt’s appearance. Asked Thursday on Air Force One what he thought about it, he paused, smiled wryly, and said: “It’s an interesting interview.”

On Friday, a coalition of 64 House Democrats called for Pruitt’s resignation. Pruitt’s conservative allies said that is more likely to bolster the administrator’s standing than hurt it and said they hope Kelly will not force him out.

“If he doesn’t weather this, no one is ever going to take another job in this administration, and John Kelly is an idiot,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist, adding, “If this turns into a referendum on who is doing more for the president’s agenda, Pruitt will win.”

Conservatives have rallied around Pruitt. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page said the EPA chief was being hounded because of his success in dismantling Obama-era environmental standards. Other conservative groups have accused the media of campaigning for Pruitt’s ouster. Kelly and Pruitt have clashed in the past. The chief of staff stepped in last year to block an effort by the EPA chief to announce public “red team, blue team” hearings on climate change, an idea Pruitt had personally pitched to the president as a way of challenging the science behind global warming. Trump liked the idea, officials said, but his administration regarded it as foolish at best and potentially disastrous, fearing it could become a spectacle that would undermine the president’s anti-regulatory push.

At a December meeting to discuss Pruitt’s plan, a deputy of Kelly’s said the plan was “dead” and not to be discussed further.