As The Scandals Mount, Conservatives Turn On Scott Pruitt

Jun 14, 2018
Originally published on June 14, 2018 6:54 pm

Updated at 4:30 p.m. ET

Amid an unceasing series of revelations about alleged ethical misconduct, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is rapidly losing support with influential Republican lawmakers and conservatives who, until now, have strongly backed Pruitt and the pro-fossil fuel deregulatory agenda he's implemented.

In recent days, new reports have emerged showing that Pruitt repeatedly used his position to seek employment and business opportunities for his wife, and had agency staffers doing personal errands on his behalf — both allegations that could run afoul of federal ethics laws. At least a dozen investigations are underway into various aspects of Pruitt's conduct.

"PRUITT BAD JUDGMENT HURTING @POTUS, GOTTA GO," tweeted influential conservative talk radio host and Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham on Wednesday.

"It just doesn't look good. If you want to drain the swamp, you got to have people in it who forego personal benefits and don't send your aides around doing personal errands on the taxpayer dime, otherwise you make everyone else look bad," said Ingraham on her radio show on Wednesday.

"All these things that are coming are really not good things," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. in an interview with Ingraham. "I've kind of taken the position that if that doesn't stop, I'm going to be forced to be in a position where I'm going to say, 'Scott you're not doing your job.'"

Inhofe is one of Pruitt's political mentors and allies from his home state of Oklahoma and said the Senate should hold hearings into Pruitt's scandals.

"I support Sen. Inhofe's call for a hearing on EPA Administrator Pruitt's scandals; and I continue to urge the President to take a hard look at Mr. Pruitt's actions — as I do not feel that Mr. Pruitt is serving President Trump's best interests," tweeted Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa later in the day. Ernst and fellow Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley have particularly clashed with Pruitt over rules around the use of ethanol.

Conservative condemnation of Pruitt's behavior has stepped up as Pruitt's ethical problems have deepened.

The American Future Fund, a political nonprofit, is running a campaign-style television ad calling Pruitt a "swamp monster" and using a clip of President Trump when he hosted "The Apprentice" saying "You're fired."

A scathing editorial published by the National Review said, "we are now at a point where a good week for Pruitt sees only one report of behavior that is bizarre or venal."

"This is no way for any public official to treat taxpayers," the influential conservative magazine continued. "It also makes it practically impossible for Pruitt to make the case for the Trump administration's environmental policies — a case that we continue to believe deserves to be made."

Deputy administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, would be a likely candidate for the job, were it to be vacated by Pruitt.

In his interview with Ingraham, Inhofe suggested that it could be a "good swap" if Wheeler took over the EPA.

During a regular press conference, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., deflected questions about Pruitt's controversies. "Frankly, I haven't paid that close attention to them."

So far, Pruitt's ethical lapses have not crimped President Trump's support for his top environmental regulator.

"Scott Pruitt is doing a great job within the walls of the EPA. I mean, we're setting records," said Trump last week. "Outside, he's being attacked very viciously by the press. And I'm not saying that he's blameless, but we'll see what happens."

All of this fits a Washington pattern, said former congressman, now-lobbyist Tom Davis.

"Scott's got some really powerful enemies in this town. And they're not gonna let up," Davis said, referring to a treasure trove of EPA emails that environmental groups got through Freedom Of Information requests. But the emails only documented Pruitt's conduct.

"It looks to me like the snowball is rolling down hill and it's just gathering more and more," said Davis. "I don't know what he does to reverse it at this point."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The ice underneath Scott Pruitt is getting thinner. The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency has been under scrutiny for months as a list of alleged ethics problems has grown longer and more complex. Through it all, President Trump and many conservatives have defended Pruitt. That's starting to change, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: This is an old Washington story reworked for the Trump era. Scott Pruitt wants to remake EPA as a business-friendly, less regulatory agency, but what gets the headlines is the succession of ethics issues - the $43,000 soundproof booth for his office; the sweetheart deal, renting a room from the wife of an EPA lobbyist; the efforts by Pruitt's staff to line up a job for his wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE LAURA INGRAHAM SHOW")

LAURA INGRAHAM: He's hurting the president.

OVERBY: Talk show host Laura Ingraham.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE LAURA INGRAHAM SHOW")

INGRAHAM: If you want to drain the swamp, you got to have people in it who forgo personal benefits and don't send your aides around doing personal errands on the taxpayer dime. Otherwise you make everybody else look bad.

OVERBY: The tipping point seemed to come when Pruitt reversed his stand on the ethanol program which Midwestern states like Iowa cherish. Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican and a defender of ethanol, said Pruitt is as swampy as you get. Here's Ernst on MSNBC last Thursday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONI ERNST: I think the president needs to have a really tough discussion with administrator Scott Pruitt and say, you need to get yourself in line, or you're going to go.

OVERBY: The same day, Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana blasted Pruitt on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KENNEDY: But he's acting like a moron. If you can't use good judgment and put taxpayers first, it's time to find another line of work.

OVERBY: President Trump likes it when his appointees shake things up. He'd been giving Pruitt his full endorsement. But on Friday, he hedged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, Scott Pruitt is doing a great job within the walls of the EPA. I mean, we're setting records. Outside he's being attacked very viciously by the press. And I'm not saying that he's blameless, but we'll see what happens.

OVERBY: Next up, the American Future Fund. The conservative nonprofit group rolled out a TV ad for the upper Midwest, ethanol country. It's the kind of treatment the fund usually gives liberal Democrats.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Scott Pruitt is a swamp monster. Mr. President, you know what to do.

TRUMP: You're fired.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The fight for the good of the country, Pruitt must go.

OVERBY: The conservative magazine National Review called for Pruitt's departure, and yesterday came possibly the hardest blow of all from a home state friend of Pruitt's, Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe. He was being interviewed by Laura Ingraham.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE LAURA INGRAHAM SHOW")

JIM INHOFE: I'm afraid my good friend Scott Pruitt has done some things that really surprise me.

OVERBY: Inhofe kept going about Pruitt's ethics problems.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE LAURA INGRAHAM SHOW")

INHOFE: They upset me as much as they upset you. And I think something needs to happen to change that. One of those alternatives would be for him to leave that job.

OVERBY: Former congressman, now lobbyist Tom Davis said all of this fits a Washington pattern.

TOM DAVIS: Scott's made some really powerful enemies in this town. And they just - they've got their jaws in, and they're not going to let up.

OVERBY: And it's true that some of the ethics stories began with a treasure trove of EPA emails that environmental groups got through Freedom of Information requests. But the emails only documented the conduct. Again, Tom Davis.

DAVIS: It looks to me like the snowball is rolling down the hill, and it's just gathering more and more as it comes down. I don't know what he does to reverse it at this point.

OVERBY: Davis said that when you come to Washington to do public service, you do public service. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.