White House considered firing Pruitt

Source: By ELIANA JOHNSON, ALEX GUILLÉN and ANDREW RESTUCCIA, Politico • Posted: Wednesday, April 4, 2018

But the EPA chief is continuing to push Trump’s deregulation agenda — and that may help him hang on, allies say.

White House chief of staff John Kelly has considered the firing of embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt in the coming months as part of a wave of ousters of top officials causing headaches for the president, a senior administration official told POLITICO.

Pruitt is still hanging on for now, in part because Kelly wanted to wait for an upcoming EPA inspector general’s report into his expensive travels, the senior official said. Another possible reason: Pruitt is doing the job President Donald Trump wants — including an announcement Monday that the agency will reverse the Obama administration’s attempt to tighten fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks.

Multiple people close to the president still argue that Pruitt is one of Trump’s most effective Cabinet members in making policy, despite the steady drumbeat of headlines about his lavish travel expenses, high security costs and, most recently, the $50-a-night lodging he secured for several months last year in a lobbyist’s Capitol Hill condo.

His supporters say Monday’s move on car and truck rules, long expected to land this week, is a case in point: It fulfills Trump’s priority of reducing manufacturers’ costs and will make life easier for automakers in states like Ohio and Michigan, while enraging liberals from California and other places that rejected the president in 2016.

“Scott Pruitt has proven that he’s not afraid to stick his neck out and take on some big issues, and this is another example of that,” said Myron Ebell, the energy director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who ran Trump’s EPA transition team. He added: “Now whether that helps him given his bad press on these other things, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Mike McKenna, an energy lobbyist who worked on the administration’s transition team, said he doubts the recent news stories about Pruitt would even register with the White House when compared with his policy efforts, including the move to reverse fuel standards. “I think he’s an A student. … He’s always working. He’s always focused on the agenda. He’s always trying to figure out ways to make the boss look good.”

But the senior administration official, speaking anonymously to discuss internal policy deliberations, said Kelly had discussed firing Pruitt even before the latest revelations about his housing arrangements.

The official said Kelly had been waiting for the release of a forthcoming EPA inspector general’s report on Pruitt’s travels, which senior aides expected would be damning. Pruitt spent at least $163,000 on first-class flights, charter flights and a military jet during his first year at the agency, including stops in Paris and Morocco, POLITICO has reported based on EPA records.

Kelly and other aides were also waiting for IG reports on Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and then-Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, the official said.

POLITICO reported last month that the top aides had been considering announcing ousters of several officials at once, including then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster, until Trump upended those plans by abruptly firing McMaster late last month. The president subsequently showed Shulkin the door last week.

Now, Pruitt is in the position of trying to weather the latest bout of scandal and prove he’s more valuable inside the Trump administration than on the outside.

White House aides have privately expressed exasperation with Pruitt in recent weeks over the series of negative stories that dominated headlines, paired with reports, including in POLITICO, that he was interested in replacing the even more embattled Jeff Sessions as attorney general. 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.

Still, a second senior administration official told POLITICO last week that the White House stands behind Pruitt, even if the condo lease “probably does not show the best judgment.” The official noted that Pruitt is “focused on enacting the Trump agenda.”

Neither Pruitt nor Trump has commented publicly on the EPA leader’s newest troubles, although EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement late Monday that “Administrator Pruitt is focused on advancing President Trump’s agenda of regulatory certainty and environmental stewardship.” As examples, Wilcox cited Pruitt’s successful effort to persuade Trump to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, as well as work on repealing Barack Obama’s major climate and water regulations and “cleaning up toxic Superfund sites that have been languishing for decades.”

But criticism of Pruitt has even come from inside the GOP: Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — who briefly oversaw Trump’s post-election transition, and who could be a contender to replace Sessions himself — said Sunday that he did not expect Pruitt to survive.

Democrats and environmental groups are also eager to show Pruitt the door, saying the furor over his lease with the lobbyist exemplifies what’s wrong with the EPA chief’s policies.

“The national media spotlight on the fact that he quite literally is in the bed of industry lobbyists really exposes the broader pattern that we’ve seen from Scott Pruitt from the beginning: that he expects favors from polluter lobbyists because he is doing favors for polluter lobbyists,” said Jeremy Symons, vice president for political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Symons also disputed the notion that Pruitt has been a successful EPA leader, noting that courts have dealt multiple setbacks to his deregulatory efforts and Congress has rejected his proposed steep budget cuts.

“Yes, he has started things Trump wanted him to start, but I doubt that he will successfully finish things because he won’t be here or because he’s going to lose in the court of law,” he said.

A similar court battle may await Pruitt’s move on the auto emissions standards.

Those requirements, for cars and trucks from model years 2022 to 2025, stemmed from a deal among representatives of the Obama administration, the auto industry and the state of California. The deal called on carmakers to make their vehicles burn less gasoline to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — and at the time, Obama’s officials said it would cause new cars and trucks to achieve an average fuel efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon. (In practice, the figure would have been more like 36 mpg.)

Soon after taking office, Trump ordered EPA to reopen its review of the efficiency requirements at the urging of automakers. Pruitt had faced a Sunday deadline to decide whether to revisit the standards.

EPA’s announcement Monday said the standards “are not appropriate and should be revised,” leaving it for the agency to decide later what the new requirements should be.

Pruitt also opened the door to possibly ending a Clean Air Act waiver that allows California to set tougher anti-pollution rules than the federal government. “Cooperative federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country,” Pruitt said, without explicitly saying he planned to revoke the waiver.

California officials excoriated Pruitt’s announcement.

“This is a politically motivated effort to weaken clean vehicle standards with no documentation, evidence or law to back up that decision,” Mary Nichols, who chairs the California Air Resources Board, said in a statement. She added, “This decision takes the U.S. auto industry backward, and we will vigorously defend the existing clean vehicle standards and fight to preserve one national clean vehicle program.”

Former Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta speculated Monday that Pruitt may not be in office long enough to see many EPA courtroom battles to their conclusion.

“At some point, it becomes untenable for the administration to keep putting up with this publicity,” Podesta told MSNBC. He added: “I think the pressure is mounting on him, and at some point it’s going to hit the breaking point.”

Emily Holden contributed to this report.