Conservative Allies Rally in Bid to Save Embattled EPA Head
(Bloomberg) -- Conservative activists and industry allies are mounting an aggressive campaign to keep Scott Pruitt at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency as he confronts ethical allegations that have critics calling for his ouster.
A handful of CEOs are calling President Donald Trump to argue against firing the man they see as a champion of deregulation. Senators are warning that getting an equally business-friendly replacement confirmed won’t be easy. And aides booked him for a series of conservative-media appearances.
“We are very much in support of him and making it known,” said Tom Pyle, who heads the American Energy Alliance, an influential free-market advocacy group. “Obviously, he is an ideal administrator.”
The unusual campaign is designed to spare Pruitt from the fate of other administration officials fired unceremoniously by Trump with little warning. Other recent departures -- including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin -- haven’t benefited from a similarly coordinated outpouring of external support.
Pruitt’s supporters are up against formidable opponents. Environmental groups are stepping up opposition research and a “boot Pruitt” campaign on Twitter. The Sierra Club broadcast a critical ad on Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends,” which counts the president among its most loyal viewers.
Booth, Flights, Landlord
The deluge of bad news for Pruitt, 49, has been relentless. He was already under fire for installing an expensive soundproof booth in his office and for flying first-class on official business. Then came last week’s revelations that he rented a Capitol Hill condo on unusually agreeable terms from the wife of a prominent energy lobbyist. This week brought reports that the agency had used an obscure law to award substantial raises to aides over White House’s objections.
EPA officials responded by trying to buttress their boss, arranging events that highlight Pruitt’s friendliness to business. Other supporters leaked word that Trump had telephoned Pruitt to offer support.
On Capitol Hill, Senate Republicans are warning the White House that it would be tough -- if not impossible -- to confirm a replacement. Given bruising confirmation fights expected for Trump’s picks to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the State Department, there isn’t much appetite for a fourth, said a senior Republican Senate aide who asked for anonymity to discuss strategy.
“I think he will be forced to nominate someone who is more moderate on the environment or he will get tattooed in the Senate,” said Dan Eberhart, chief executive officer of the Colorado-based drilling services company Canary LLC.
Trump has solicited input from lawmakers, asking some on Wednesday to tell him how they think Pruitt is doing politically, without giving any signal he intended to fire the EPA chief, according to two people familiar with the move.
Republican senators, including Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, used Twitter to defend Pruitt on Thursday. Cruz urged Trump not “to be duped and bullied by the Obama groupies” he said want to push Pruitt out.
Pruitt has emerged as the limited-government star of the Cabinet, methodically working to dismantle environmental restrictions. No Senate-confirmable replacement would be as effective an advocate for the president’s policy agenda, said Mike McKenna, a Republican energy strategist.
“Because you can’t get anyone else through the Senate, you will wind up with the modern-day equivalent of Christine Todd Whitman, who will spend every second of every day trying to obstruct the president’s agenda,” McKenna said, referring to the former New Jersey governor and moderate Republican who led the EPA under President George W. Bush.
Prominent conservatives are drafting a letter to Trump offering similar dire warnings. And Pruitt defenders are taking the message to business leaders who have Trump’s ear -- such as billionaire Oklahoma oil man Harold Hamm and confidant Chris Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax.
Supportive executives are being armed with talking points that include the threat that billions of dollars of potential investment could be put in jeopardy by a disruption at the EPA.
David Rivkin, a Washington lawyer, is among the EPA chief’s most ardent defenders.
“I’ve known him for a number of years and worked with him closely,” said Rivkin, a partner at the law firm Baker Hostetler LLP who represented the Oklahoma attorney general’s office when Pruitt held that post.
“He is carrying out the president’s policy agenda within the bounds of the law,” Rivkin said in an interview, adding that the job Pruitt has done gives him “tremendous strength and staying power.”
The pro-Pruitt message is also being amplified by CRC Public Relations, a Virginia-based firm with a roster of conservative clients that’s headed by a former Pat Buchanan communications director. The PR firm has highlighted favorable opinion pieces for reporters and pundits, including an essay at The Federalist asserting that Pruitt is the victim of “a coordinated attempt to oust him” because the EPA chief has been too “effective” in scrapping “Obama administration regulations that exceeded EPA authority and harmed the coal industry.”
Pruitt has been making the round of conservative news outlets in hopes of finding a friendly audience, with mixed results. On Wednesday, the Washington Times interviewed him, with all but five minutes of the 35-minute interview devoted to policy matters, from an obscure biofuel mandate to auto emissions, before there was a question about the current headlines: “Do you believe they are using these issues to try to get rid of you?”
Pruitt labeled the reports “noise” mounted by detractors angry that the EPA under his watch is no longer “a bastion of liberalism.” “We are getting things done and that’s what’s driving these folks crazy, and I will tell you the truth, and the facts are on our side,” he said.
The strategy appeared to backfire during a Fox News interview, when Pruitt looked caught off guard by questions about the effort to increase the annual salaries of two aides by tens of thousands of dollars. He pleaded ignorance of the matter before an incredulous correspondent and promised “accountability” for whomever was responsible.
It’s not clear the broad pro-Pruitt campaign will succeed. The White House is reviewing Pruitt’s rental arrangement, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Wednesday. Trump thinks Pruitt “has done a good job, particularly on the deregulation front,” but “we take this seriously and are looking into it,” she said.
Trump himself seemed less than convinced of Pruitt’s staying power when asked about him before meeting with Baltic leaders Tuesday. “I hope he’s going to be great,” Trump said.
Pruitt supporters fret that he might not survive if there are any more damaging disclosures.
And environmentalists are working around-the-clock to unearth them. Activists are scouring Pruitt’s real estate transactions, records from his time as Oklahoma’s attorney general, and documentation of his travel for any tantalizing detail.
“The environmental movement in total is all in for the removal of Scott Pruitt,” said Lukas Ross, a campaigner with the group Friends of the Earth. “You are going to see escalating pressure in the coming days, especially on the Senate side, to get members to commit publicly that Pruitt should be fired.”
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