(Bloomberg) -- Conservative stars are coming out in force in a bid to save the job of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, a zealous advocate of their small-government movement engulfed by allegations of ethical lapses.
Prominent Republicans and leaders of the Tea Party movement -- from publishing executive Steve Forbes to Senator Rand Paul -- are penning op-eds, posting on Twitter, and picking up the phone to personally beseech President Donald Trump to keep Pruitt at the helm of the EPA.
“He’s a conservative hero,” Dallas investor Doug Deason, whose family has given millions to right-wing candidates, said of Pruitt. “It would be a huge mistake to do anything other than come out and support him.”
High-profile business leaders including billionaire oilman Harold Hamm have also been enlisted to make personal entreaties, and tell the president that Pruitt has done more than other top administration official to ease federal regulations standing in the way of manufacturing, mining, and drilling.
The right’s fondness for Pruitt is matched by the animosity he inspires among the political left. Environmentalists have campaigned against Pruitt since his confirmation in February 2017, casting him as an unabashed ally of corporate polluters who is dismantling regulations essential to safeguard the land, air and water.
“It’s a pretty sad statement of the priorities of these right-wing ideologues that they think someone who is clearly unethical and has no respect for taxpayers or the law is okay to keep around, as long as he pushes their dangerous agenda,” said John Coequyt, the Sierra Club’s senior director of federal policy. “Pruitt has been nothing more than their puppet, putting public health at risk to help corporate polluter’s bottom line, and this is exactly why he needs to go.”
Publicly, Trump has offered praise for Pruitt, telling reporters Thursday that he had confidence in the embattled EPA chief and calling him “very courageous” amid a barrage of damaging revelations. Trump underscored that on Friday with a post on Twitter saying Pruitt “is doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege.”
Nevertheless, Pruitt’s standing at the White House is far from secure. Top administration officials have been skeptical of his explanation about how two close aides secured raises worth tens of thousands of dollars a year over the White House’s objection, according to people familiar with the matter. And they’re frustrated by the spate of bad news surrounding Pruitt, including reports he rented a Capitol Hill bedroom from a lobbyist and that several EPA staff who questioned him were transferred to other jobs.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told Trump last week that Pruitt needed to go but the president is resisting firing him, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported. The Associated Press reported that Pruitt visited the White House on Friday to discuss his agency’s recent steps to roll back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for cars but also fought for his job in a meeting with the president.
The conservative counter-effort involves darlings of the right. Edwin Meese III, an attorney general in the Reagan administration, former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, and more than 100 other prominent leaders on the right issued a memo Friday highlighting Pruitt’s policy accomplishments and casting the EPA leader as instrumental to the president’s mission to slash through Washington bureaucracy.
“He is critical to President Trump’s efforts to streamline agency efforts in a way that assists American families and the economy,” said the group. Other notable signers included James Dobson, founder of Family Talk; David Bossie, the president of Citizens United; and Richard Viguerie, chairman of ConservativeHQ.com.
Forbes, the millionaire chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes Media Inc. who ran for president in 1996 and 2000, penned an opinion piece for Investor’s Business Daily arguing that Pruitt is under fire simply because he’s been too effective at “boldly redirecting the EPA” and reining in “a once-rogue agency that operated far beyond its constitutional authority.”
“Pruitt is the right man for the job and it’s no wonder the radical left is screaming for his ouster,” Forbes said.
Kenneth Cuccinelli, a former Virginia attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate, lent his voice to a roundup of praise for Pruitt circulated by the powerful conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks. The group also is recruiting conservative voices to join the cause, with a Twitter campaign urging supporters to call the White House switchboard with endorsements of the EPA chief.
Pruitt’s defenders are making a political argument too, with some warning that Trump’s support in Republican presidential primaries two years from now could be undermined if he jettisons one of the most conservative members of his cabinet.
And they see Pruitt as one of their own.
Deason, whose family has given millions to conservative candidates, said he sent texts and emails Thursday to staff members he knows at the White House in support of Pruitt.
“We burned a lot of chits to get him into that position,” Deason said of Pruitt, describing him as a “really good friend” who has joined him at Dallas Cowboys NFL football games.
Pruitt’s supporters have warned that getting any replacement nominee approved by the Senate -- much less one as dogged as Pruitt -- could be impossible.
Unless a White House investigation were to prove Pruitt did something worthy of termination, Deason, who also donates to the political network led by billionaires Charles and David Koch, said he wants to see Trump continue to support him.
The EPA leader was well known in conservative circles even before he came to Washington, having garnered support for his willingness to challenge the federal bureaucracy -- including the agency he now leads.
Pruitt built his political career fighting federal regulations he said stripped power away from states, including the Affordable Care Act, and in his previous role as Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt joined more than a dozen lawsuits challenging EPA actions under the Obama administration.
Pruitt’s star has only risen among conservative elites since he took over the EPA. He’s proposed scrapping the Clean Power Plan, former President Barack Obama’s rule that aimed to pare greenhouse gas emissions. He’s also rewriting a water pollution rule and has effectively quashed an effort to write new limits on methane leaks from oil wells.
Pruitt, 49, has been a high-profile speaker at the Conservative Political Action Conference for two years, including a keynote address delivered in February. And he’s been a regular speaker in front of the Federalist Society, a group of conservatives and libertarians eager to reform the U.S. legal system.
“Without hyperbole, Administrator Pruitt is the most conservative member of the cabinet, both in temperament and action,” said Republican strategist Mike McKenna. “He’s also the guy who has done the most for the president’s agenda; he’s simultaneously the most conservative and the most committed to the president’s agenda.”
Some supporters are appealing to Trump’s business sense; others to his vanity. Senator Ted Cruz used Twitter to urge Trump not “to be duped and bullied by the Obama groupies” that the Texas Republican said are eager to push Pruitt out.
And Paul tweeted that Pruitt, “likely the bravest and most conservative member of Trump’s cabinet,” is necessary to help the president “drain the regulatory swamp.” Paul is a Republican from Kentucky whose constant calls to slash government spending and regulations have made him a hero of the Tea Party.
The pro-Pruitt message is getting an assist from CRC Public Relations, a Virginia-based firm headed by Greg Mueller, onetime communications director for Pat Buchanan. The firm, which has sent circulated talking points and highlighted pro-Pruitt commentary, has a number of clients supportive of the EPA administrator, “including Tea Party Patriots and Steve Forbes,” Mueller said in an emailed statement.
“Director Pruitt is advancing pro-growth and pro-environment policies that the center-right constituency has advocated for decades,” Mueller said. “When a conservative leader like Director Pruitt is advancing conservative policies or under attack, we engage.”
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