Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

White House Said to Deter Republicans From Defending Pruitt

(Bloomberg) -- White House officials are cautioning Republican lawmakers and other conservative allies to temper their defense of Scott Pruitt, according to two people familiar with the discussions, in a sign that administration support for the embattled EPA chief may be waning.

The warnings come as several top GOP lawmakers have stepped forward to publicly criticize Pruitt in recent days, marking a dramatic turn of fortune for one of the most conservative members of President Donald Trump’s cabinet who has been heralded for dismantling Obama-era regulations.

Republicans are now sharpening their criticisms of Pruitt amid a revelation that he met at least once with the lobbyist whose wife rented him a bedroom on Capitol Hill.

Pruitt’s performance in front of two congressional committees this week could be key in determining how long he remains at the agency’s helm. The back-to-back House hearings scheduled for Thursday -- nominally on the EPA budget -- are set to be Pruitt’s first public appearance on Capitol Hill since the deluge of damaging revelations that began late last month.

The scrutiny also coincides with the arrival of a deputy administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency who could take Pruitt’s place: former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, who was hurriedly installed as the EPA’s No. 2 official after being confirmed by the Senate 11 days ago.

It’s the "president’s decision to make" whether Pruitt should stay, said John Thune, of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican in the Senate. “They have to resolve this and get those questions answered," he added. "I don’t think they’re probably going away."

White House officials have discouraged lawmakers from vigorously defending the administrator, said the two people, who asked for anonymity because the discussions weren’t public.

Pruitt is under fire for his unorthodox $50-per-night rental of a Capitol Hill bedroom from a lobbyist, frequent travel to his home state of Oklahoma, questionable spending decisions at the EPA, raises for two top aides and allegations that employees who challenged the administrator’s decisions were sidelined. There are at least a half dozen formal investigations now targeting Pruitt and even more informal inquiries, including requests by Republican lawmakers seeking documents and information.

“We’re reviewing some of those allegations," White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters in a briefing Monday. She added that while Pruitt has done a good job of implementing Trump’s policies, "the other things are certainly something that we’re monitoring."

Trump has been clear that Pruitt hasn’t done anything wrong, Sanders said, but the White House was "continuing to review a number of the reports" about him.

Four Republicans have now publicly called on Pruitt to resign, including New Jersey Representative Frank LoBiondo in a tweet on Sunday -- echoing a formal push by 170 Democrats in the House and Senate last week. But it’s the dramatic shift among Pruitt’s allies on Capitol Hill -- including some top lawmakers who have praised the administrator -- that is most notable.

Senator Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who until recently had been one of Pruitt’s staunchest defenders, told reporters Tuesday he had become concerned about some of the recent allegations against the administrator.

"If they are all accurate, I would be very disturbed. And quite frankly I am checking to see their level of accuracy," Inhofe said. Asked if Pruitt should step down if the allegations are true, Inhofe said it "depends on which ones we are talking about."

John Barrasso, a Republican senator from Wyoming, is another lawmaker who previously lauded Pruitt’s work to rewrite environmental regulations imposed during former President Barack Obama’s administration and is now asking questions about his spending. Barrasso praised Pruitt for accomplishing "key priorities as head of the EPA," in an April 9 statement, describing the administrator as having been "instrumental in returning the agency to its original mission" and reversing "punishing regulations."

Barrasso’s tone changed after the Government Accountability Office concluded on April 16 that the EPA had violated spending laws by failing to tell Congress about plans to install a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in Pruitt’s office. In a terse statement hours later, Barrasso demanded "a full public accounting of this expenditure and explain why the agency thinks it was complying with the law.”

Barrasso also sent a letter to Pruitt alleging the administrator was using four email addresses and insisting he prove they were being searched in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act. (The EPA subsequently said it is customary to maintain secondary accounts for administrators and said they had also been searched in response to inquiries).

Republican Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who heads the House Oversight Committee that is probing Pruitt, openly mocked the EPA chief’s reliance on first-class airfare, which agency officials have said was necessary amid escalating threats. Sitting in first class is a guarantee you’ll come in contact with other passengers, Gowdy said on “Fox News Sunday” on April 15.

“So the notion that I’ve got to fly first class because I don’t want people to be mean to me?" Gowdy said. "You need to go into another line of work if you don’t want people to be mean to you -- like maybe a monk, where you don’t come in contact with anyone.”

And top Republicans are increasingly drawing a distinction between Pruitt’s performance on policy and perceived ethical lapses. "Substantively, I think he has done an excellent job; certainly in a state like mine he is a welcome change from what was there before," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky. "But it is really up to the president to decide who his team is and whether he wants to continue the EPA administrator."

Trump publicly defended Pruitt in an April 7 tweet, saying "Pruitt is doing a great job!" But that was before the GAO report and an announcement that the White House Office of Management and Budget was investigating the phone booth purchase.

Pruitt has been maintaining a low profile. Although he has kept up public appearances -- Pruitt visited Georgia to talk about forest management on Monday -- he has forgone the kind of media blitz that White House officials had urged against, following a tough Fox News interview earlier this month.

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