Ronny Jackson decided to retreat. Scott Pruitt decided to man the barricades instead. Appearing before a House subcommittee on the environment, Pruitt got grilled on the environment within the EPA and his office as Democrats hammered him over recent allegations of mismanagement and corruption. Pruitt started off the hearing by reminding them that newspaper headlines do not truth make:
Pruitt: "Facts are facts and fiction is fiction, and a lie doesn't become truth just because it appears on the front page of the newspaper. Much of what has been targeted toward me and my team has been half truth, or at best stories so twisted they do not resemble reality." pic.twitter.com/jw54Z9lpfw
— POLITICO (@politico) April 26, 2018
After that, though, Pruitt mainly stayed on defense. Democrats pounced on the scandal allegations to the point where discussions of EPA policy evaporated entirely. Republicans wasted little time in pointing out the dynamic:
Democrats wasted little time in ripping into him, charging that Pruitt had put his own interests over the job of protecting the environment and human health, and he had shown he didn’t deserve the public trust.
“I think your actions are an embarrassment to President Trump and distract from the EPA’s ability to effectively carry out the president’s mission, and if I were the president I wouldn’t want your help,” said Frank Pallone (D-N.J). “I’d get rid of you.”
But Pruitt’s defenders, like Rep. David McKinley (R. W.Va.), who has praised Pruitt’s rollback of climate change and water regulations, dismissed the Democrats’ complaints as political posturing.
“To the public, I think this has been a lot of classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism that were seeing too often here in Washington that I think unfortunately works against civility and respect for people in public office,” he said. “Some can’t resist the limelight, the opportunity to grandstand.”
Still, a few of the barbs stuck. Pruitt had earlier denied knowing anything about pay raises for his closest aides, and the EPA had backed that contention. In this exchange with Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), Pruitt admits that he knew about and supported the raises, but didn’t know the amount and that they had not been processed through normal channels:
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) April 26, 2018
Rep. Paul Tonko, a top Democrat on the committee, was the first to question Pruitt and attempted to get the administrator to admit that he authorized the raises of two top staffers who also worked for Pruitt when he was attorney general of Oklahoma — an issue that the EPA’s inspector general is also probing.
Pruitt said he was “not aware of the amount” of the raises and would not give a straight “yes” or “no” answer to whether he authorized the raises, saying his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, was given the authority to sign off on the raises.
Pruitt also said he was not aware that proper protocols were bypassed to issue the raises.
“Well then, I’m concerned that you have no idea what is going on in your name at your agency,” Tonko said.
In other exchanges, it just appeared that the point was to conduct a public beating. Rep. Anna Eshoo wanted to know whether Pruitt “had any remorse” over his spending and his contact with lobbyists, and refused to allow him to answer anything but yes or no:
— POLITICO (@politico) April 26, 2018
It goes without saying that these are not courtrooms. People testifying before House subcommittees are not confined to yes or no questions, especially to complicated, multiple-clause loaded questions. The points Eshoo raises are certainly legitimate, but Pruitt gets to have his say, too … at least if the purpose of the hearing is edification.
All of this is merely prologue. The real question is how long the White House will stick with Pruitt after his missteps and the sensational headlines he dismisses. Yesterday, it looked like his support was beginning to slip:
PARKER: Sarah, Scott Pruitt lived for below-market rent in a Capitol Hill rowhouse owned by an energy industry lobbyist. He reportedly directed staff to give raises to top aides and then obfuscated about it. He spent over $150,000 — of taxpayer dollars — on first-class travel. And he reportedly once even tried to get his security detail to use their sirens so he could get to a reservation at Le Diplomate, among other alleged ethical lapses. I know you said yesterday you were looking at reports about him, but can you sort of explain why he still has a job in the president’s Cabinet and also how his behavior is in keeping with the values of draining the swamp?
SANDERS: Again, we’re evaluating these concerns, and we expect the EPA administrator to answer for them, and we’ll keep you posted.
As Callum Borchers notes, one might need to brush the frost off those words from Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Certainly the White House wanted to see how Pruitt handled himself today before making any decisions on his future, and everyone knows how much Trump values a pugilistic attitude from staff. Did Pruitt fight back hard enough to make Trump want to fight back on his behalf?
Factor this in too: how easy will it be to replace Pruitt? In a 50-49 Senate (with McCain out for medical treatment), can he get a hardline fighter for regulatory rollbacks past the confirmation hurdles? I’d guess that Trump’s leaning hard on letting Pruitt take a beating for a while to see if the news media and Democrats get tired out. After what happened to Ronny Jackson this week and the need to fill the VA slot again, Trump might be even more inclined to let Pruitt alone.