Did I neglect to mention the fifth story in Politico, about John Kelly supposedly weighing whether to fire him?
Good lord. I can’t remember the last time I saw a leak pile-on like this. There’s no telling who the culprit is either since Pruitt has enemies on both sides. On the one hand, he’s a right-wing champion of deregulation leading a team of left-wing bureaucrats opposed to that agenda. On the other hand, he’s a player in the White House’s endless “Game of Thrones” episode, rumored for months to be eyeing Jeff Sessions’s job as AG. Is it the lefties at EPA who are knifing him? The righties allied with Sessions? Some other unknown Beltway type whom he pissed off?
The hardest hit comes from the Times, picking up on the news that Pruitt rented a room in the home of a lobbyist couple in D.C. at a sweetheart rate of just 50 bucks a night and only paid them for nights when he was actually there. Nothing shady about that, the EPA noted afterward. It wasn’t a quid pro quo since the agency did no business with the lobbyists. Maybe not — but it did do business with the lobbyists’ clients.
The Environmental Protection Agency signed off last March on a Canadian energy company’s pipeline-expansion plan at the same time that the E.P.A. chief, Scott Pruitt, was renting a condominium linked to the energy company’s powerful Washington lobbying firm…
The signoff by the E.P.A. came even though the agency, at the end of the Obama administration, had moved to fine [the Canadian company] $61 million in connection with a 2010 pipeline episode that sent hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan and other waterways.
Pruitt’s rental had nothing to do with the regulatory approval, the EPA insists, and the lobbying firm claims that it didn’t intervene with the agency on the deal. There was no impropriety, allegedly, but there’s an appearance of impropriety, something the West Wing claims to be sensitive to given Trump’s campaign promises to “drain the swamp” and run an above-board populist government. (Whether appearances of impropriety are a problem for Trump family members like Jared Kushner is a separate question.) Meanwhile, over at the Atlantic, there’s news that Pruitt requested large raises for two top aides at the EPA who had joined him in Washington after working for him in Oklahoma. Those raises were denied by the White House — but Pruitt, with a little statutory know-how, decided to order them anyway:
A provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act allows the EPA administrator to hire up to 30 people into the agency, without White House or congressional approval. The provision, meant to help expedite the hiring of experts and allow for more flexible staffing, became law in 1996. In past administrations, it has been used to hire specialists into custom-made roles in especially stressed offices, according to Bob Perciasepe, a former acting EPA administrator.
After the White House rejected their request, Pruitt’s team studied the particulars of the Safe Drinking Water provision, according to the source with direct knowledge of these events. By reappointing Greenwalt and Hupp under this authority, they learned, Pruitt could exercise total control over their contracts and grant the raises on his own…
Word of the raises quickly began to circulate through the agency. The episode infuriated some staffers; to some political aides, it was evidence of Pruitt’s disregard for the White House’s warnings to cabinet officials that they avoid even the appearance of impropriety. It also underscored the administrator’s tendency to play favorites among his staff, according to two sources with direct knowledge of agency dynamics.
Another “appearance of impropriety” problem. WaPo also has a Pruitt story out this morning, alleging that his team considered renting a private jet for his travel month-to-month before abandoning the idea. Pruitt’s already under fire for his travel expenses, spending more than $100,000 in his first year on first-class flights. And the Daily Beast has something about Republicans throwing fundraisers at the same lobbyist home in D.C. where Pruitt stayed, raising suspicions of some sort of quid pro quo on his daily rate. None of these are clean hits: There’s no smoking gun of wrongdoing in any of them, and while Pruitt’s lobbyist accommodations are suspicious, they’re also penny-ante by Washington standards. The question is simply how many bad headlines Trump is willing to endure that risk undermining his populist message in the name of keeping Pruitt in his job.
Could be a lot! Politico’s story about Kelly mulling whether to fire Pruitt claims that he’s waiting for the IG report on Pruitt’s travel habits to make a recommendation but in the meantime the EPA chief continues to push Trump’s agenda forward. Just yesterday the EPA rolled back emissions standards for carmakers, potentially setting up a fight with Trump’s nemeses in California over whether blue states should be allowed to impose higher emissions standards themselves. Pissing off the right people is a plus for any administrator in Trump’s West Wing. On the other hand, according to Politico, the whispers about him wanting to replace Sessions are a problem: “The issue of Pruitt’s apparent big ambitions has roiled some in the White House, who often note that Trump is turned off by underlings who try to hog the spotlight.” Is Pruitt trying to “hog the spotlight” from Trump, though? Or from Sessions?
POTUS is standing by him for now:
NEW: President Trump called Administrator Pruitt last night and said "Keep your head up, keep fighting. We have your back," per administration official.
COS Kelly called Pruitt this morning and reiterated POTUS' message.
— Jacqueline Alemany (@JaxAlemany) April 3, 2018
Of course, if you believe David Shulkin, Trump called him the very morning of his termination and checked in with him on how things were going at the VA, even setting up a meeting for the following day, before changing his mind and dropping the axe on him that afternoon. We have a loose-cannon president and the thing about loose cannons is that they’re apt to go off unexpectedly. Pruitt could be gone tomorrow if the mood strikes. If he wants to keep Pruitt, though, he should look at it this way: Whose mind would be changed about him or his administration if he said “to hell with it” and left Pruitt in place despite the drumbeat of swampy headlines? Trump voters don’t seem to care about any of this stuff. As long as Trump continues to deliver big-picture populism, attacking the media and the “deep state,” the granular populism of Pruitt’s travel habits and Ben Carson’s office furniture and Ryan Zinke’s $139,000 doors are immaterial.
And needless to say, voters who already dislike Trump won’t be persuaded that he’s serious about good government if he suddenly fires Pruitt, any more than they were after Tom Price was sent packing. The question for POTUS is simply whether Pruitt can be effective at an agency if many of his underlings have lost confidence in him for ethical reasons. (“This whole thing has completely gutted any morale I had left to put up with this place,” said one deputy to the Atlantic.) Even then, how many EPA bureaucrats are genuinely troubled by the appearance of impropriety and how many are using that as a pretext to vent their ideological disagreements with Pruitt? Trump may like the idea of an unpopular Republican leading a left-wing bureaucracy. In theory his unpopularity just proves that he’s doing something right.
But you never know. Here’s Trump crony Chris Christie shanking Pruitt on the Sunday shows over his rental arrangement.
— ABC News (@ABC) April 2, 2018