Scandal-Battered Scott Pruitt, Hanging on, Hopes John Kelly Overplayed His Hand With Decider Donald Trump
The EPA chief has endured a tougher week than any Cabinet official yet. But his team feels he may weather the storm.
Senior officials in the Trump White House had urged Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt not to embark on a media blitz this week amid a torrent of scandal threatening his job. But Pruitt did it anyway, because, as a source close to the administrator said, he was convinced no one else from the administration would go out and defend him otherwise.
He wasn’t wrong. “There is no warmth coming from us [right now],” is how one senior Trump aide put it to The Daily Beast.
But it was still a gamble. The result of Pruitt’s media tour was, among other things, a prickly interview with Fox News that immediately angered top White House staffers. Inside the EPA, however, aides and Pruitt loyalists believe the round of unsanctioned interviews was worth those costs. As of Friday afternoon, influential conservative media figures and lawmakers had rallied to Pruitt’s defense, and President Donald J. Trump had not been convinced by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to sack his EPA chief.
Everyone involved in the rolling saga surrounding Pruitt cautions that things could quickly change, depending on the president’s passing whims. But as of Friday afternoon, there was a growing sense of hope among Pruitt allies that he could, indeed would, weather the storm.
“It’s not over, nor are we in the clear,” said one source. “But there is a sense of optimism.”
Should Pruitt survive, it would constitute a remarkable bit of political perseverance. No other Cabinet official in this administration has endured a series of scandals such as the EPA chief has this week. Revelations that he was renting a below-market-price condo from a well-connected lobbyists led to revelations that said lobbyist had business before the EPA (even though Pruitt had denied this was the case), which were followed by revelations that Pruitt had gone around the White House to get raises for two close aides, which were coupled by revelations that he lied about not knowing about those raises, which were drowned out by revelations that he’d reassigned staff who objected to his high-spending ways, which were coupled by revelations that he’d tried to turn the siren on his motorcade to make it more quickly to a pricey french bistro, which culminated in revelations that he had actually been delinquent on the incredibly cheap rent that he was being asked to pay at his lobbyist-owned pad.
Inside the EPA, the cascading news has prompted a frantic search to suss out the sources of these stories—or, at least, to point fingers and start “witch hunts,” as one administration official derisively characterized that search.
Three sources with knowledge of the situation have alleged internally that Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s former deputy chief of staff for operations, is behind the flood of damning press leaks. Chmielewski, who is one of the staffers Pruitt reassigned, is close to some prominent Trumpworld figures, including Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, whose book describes the former EPA official as one of the few members of “Corey’s original team who had any political experience.”
Current EPA officials, however, have not been able to produce any conclusive evidence that Chmielewski was behind anything, and he has categorically denied the charge.
Other targets of the frenzied, informal leak investigation include none other than Rob Porter, the disgraced former Trump aide and accused wife-abuser. On Thursday, the subscription-only publication Inside EPA posted a thinly sourced story reading, “Porter, a top former aide to President Donald Trump who was fired earlier this year over domestic abuse allegations, is reportedly a source of information about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's ethical transgressions that are threatening his future at the agency, after Porter’s relationship with a top former Pruitt aide soured.”
Sources confirmed that this has been whispered about within the Trump administration but, again, none could produce any concrete proof. A source close to Porter told The Daily Beast that the “story is absolutely not true.”
As agency leadership tried to pinpoint the sources of discord coming from within, they also have been battling a different source from outside the building. Senior officials familiar with the current situation say that the relationship between the EPA and the White House has deteriorated dramatically as Pruitt’s scandals have worsened. Communications between the two entities have been patchy. And Kelly’s push to have Pruitt fired has turned an already tenuous situation into an outright chilly one.
But there is also a sense that Pruitt remains on solid standing with Trump himself, even more so now that conservative media luminaries like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, alongside GOP lawmakers close to Trump—such as Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Pete Ricketts (NE)—have rallied to Pruitt’s defense. There is also a feeling that Kelly may have misplayed his hand by letting it be known that he wanted the EPA administrator gone. Should Trump not follow through, after all, it would underscore the chief of staff s diminished clout inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., both EPA and West Wing officials believe.
“The EPA administrator’s success at aggressively implementing the president’s agenda and rolling back regulations has definitely provided him a grace period—but these stories need to stop, so he can continue to do the job he’s doing,” Marc Lotter, a top Trump media surrogate and Vice President Mike Pence’s former press secretary, told The Daily Beast on Friday afternoon. “It’s unfortunate that these stories are taking away from the success that he’s generating at the EPA.”
—with additional reporting by Lachlan Markay