In this March 10, 2016 photo, Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General, gestures as he speaks during an interview in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Photo by Sue Ogrocki/AP

Amid scandal, the EPA’s Pruitt has a chat with the White House

Updated

Donald Trump’s far-right EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, was already embroiled in controversy when last week’s scandal broke. Pruitt lived in a lobbyist’s home, paying below market-rate rents, while taking steps to benefit one of the lobbyist’s clients.

Late yesterday, the New York Times moved the ball forward, reporting that the Environmental Protection Agency “signed off last March on a Canadian energy company’s pipeline-expansion plan at the same time that the E.P.A. chief, Scott Pruitt, was renting a condominium linked to the energy company’s powerful Washington lobbying firm.”

The agency insists this was just a coincidence, though it’s difficult under the circumstances to give Pruitt the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, the phrase “appearance of impropriety” exists for a reason.

Then the leaks started. The Washington Post  reported late yesterday that Pruitt’s aides “last year considered leasing a private jet on a month-to-month basis to accommodate his travel needs.” The Atlantic  reported this morning that the White House balked at giving big pay raises to the EPA administrator’s top two aides – but Pruitt found a way to get them the money anyway.

It’s against this backdrop that the Oklahoma Republican had a chat with the White House yesterday. According to Bloomberg Politics, the call went well for the scandal-plagued EPA chief.

President Donald Trump called his embattled environmental chief Monday to assure him his job is safe amid mounting scrutiny of Scott Pruitt’s travel, hiring practices and an unorthodox condo rental arrangement last year, according to an administration official.

The president told Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, to “keep your head up” and “keep fighting,” because the White House has “got your back” said the official, who asked not to be identified discussing personnel matters. That message was reinforced by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly in a telephone call to Pruitt on Tuesday morning, the official said.

If this report is accurate, it would appear Team Trump is entirely comfortable with Pruitt’s alleged corruption, despite the seriousness of the evidence.

That said, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First, we don’t know for certain that the latest reporting is accurate. Politico had a report on the phone calls, but it didn’t characterize them quite the same way, stating that Pruitt’s fate is still “uncertain.”

Second, this White House has a habit of changing direction, especially on personnel matters. Last Monday, for example, White House officials confirmed that Trump had confidence in then-VA Secretary David Shulkin. Two days later, the president spoke with Shulkin over the phone, and they had a perfectly nice conversation about veterans’ care.

Later that evening, Trump fired Shulkin.

Pruitt may remain a cabinet member in good standing this morning, but when it comes to predicting Trump’s position by this evening, your guess is as good as mine.

But stepping back, it’s important to consider the signal this White House would send if it doesn’t fire Pruitt. The president is already facing allegations of corruption, but the problem will only intensify if Trump shows a tolerance for related abuses among those on his team.

As we discussed the other day,  12 years ago, with Republicans controlling the White House, the Senate, and the House, Democrats had a fair amount of success running against the GOP’s “culture of corruption.”

The party may want to consider dusting off that playbook.