When Scott Pruitt heads to Capitol Hill on Thursday, his future in the Trump administration hangs in the balance. The embattled Environmental Protection Agency administrator has few defenders left in the nation’s capital. And even inside the White House, there is a growing sense—indeed, desire—that the administration could potentially rid itself of its Pruitt problem were he simply to fall on his face before House lawmakers.
Two White House officials told The Daily Beast that they hope Pruitt does “crash and burn”—as one put it—so as to possibly give the president the pretense to finally fire him. That sentiment isn’t shared universally. But few, if any, inside the White House are actively rooting for Pruitt to do well when he comes under questioning.
Those feelings underscore the wave of frustration that has long been building between White House staff and Pruitt’s inner circle. Several top-ranking figures in the Trump orbit have wanted Pruitt ousted for weeks due to the mounting scandals and terrible press coverage, and wouldn’t mind yet another televised example showing why it’s time for the administrator to go.
It’s a feeling not lost on the EPA higher-ups, either. Inside that agency, senior officials are perfectly aware that a slip-up at the hearings can and will be used to attempt to erode Pruitt’s standing inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But that standing, in their estimation, has always been reliant on the president’s fondness for Pruitt and his performance at the EPA. When the administrator sits down before Congress on Thursday, the target audience will consist of just one person, the president, and their mission will be singularly focused: keep Trump happy.
To that end, Pruitt has declined the help of the White House, but is calling members of Congress to discuss his testimony, solicit advice, and try to get a sense of what questions might be thrown his way, The Daily Beast has learned.
The EPA administrator, who is reportedly set to pass the blame on to other staffers, will face two rounds of questioning before House Appropriations and Energy and Commerce subcommittees. Both hearings are ostensibly focused on the EPA’s budget. But Pruitt will face angry and skeptical lawmakers from across the aisle. Democrats are planning to pre-but the hearings with a press conference with environmental groups calling on Pruitt to resign. As for the hearings themselves, lawmakers have devised a streamlined approach that puts a heavy emphasis on connecting certain Pruitt scandals—such as his alleged ties to lobbyists—and the policies he’s sought to implement; while also making the case that he’s fundamentally unfit for the role.
“I’ve never heard of a public official being able to hang on this long with this many scandals—and not a single one of them resolved,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) told The Daily Beast.
Republicans are likely to be far more deferential. But they won’t necessarily be defensive. The expectation is that Pruitt will be pressed about his personal expenditures, his renting of a condo from a top D.C. lobbyist, and his dubious hiring practices, more so than the policy priorities of the EPA.
“It’ll be a budget presentation and I suspect that he’ll get pretty much straight budget questions on the Republican side and he’ll probably have a pretty sustained attack from the Democratic side of the aisle—probably some questions about housing arrangements, questions about spending of money, questions about employees,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a member of the appropriations committee. “So it’ll be, I would expect, a highly-charged hearing.”
The congressman, who talked to Pruitt in recent days about the hearings, said he told Pruitt to expect “a fairly rugged hearing” and advised him to call each individual committee member ahead of time in order to put himself in a “stronger position” as he fights to save his job.
“It could be make-or-break if he screws up or if the Democrats nail him on something,” said Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA), who sits on the energy committee. “He’s a very smart guy, so I think he’s going to be very well prepared even though he doesn’t want to take White House help… There’s a lot of stuff there that has to be explained.”
Pruitt has decidedly little margin for error.
Privately, Republican lawmakers and aides are nervous that Pruitt’s testimonies will worsen his already precarious standing. In recent weeks, they have been reticent to directly address the allegations against the EPA chief and instead have focused on their satisfaction with his job performance, including his successful efforts to roll back many Obama-era environmental regulations that Republicans abhor. Other GOP lawmakers have laboriously sought to separate Pruitt’s job performance from his personal behavior.
But for some in the party, even that has proven difficult to do.
“Mr. Pruitt’s behavior has not set a good standard. He needs to hold a press conference and speak very frankly about the criticisms and admit the ones that are valid and then offer a defense for the ones that aren’t—and then he needs to stop doing it,” Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said in an interview. “You can’t say, ‘well, because I agree with his policies it’s OK for him to disregard the fact that the money he’s spending doesn’t belong to him.’ It belongs to taxpayers.”
Others have been more cautious. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD), who chairs the subcommittee responsible for oversight of the EPA, said in an interview that he is relying heavily on the results of pending White House and House Oversight Committee investigations into Pruitt’s conduct before weighing in. But even some of Pruitt’s staunchest defenders on Capitol Hill have begun questioning his continued presence atop the EPA.
“I have to tell you that I am really going to be checking those who have accused him of things because I don’t know,” Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), a close personal friend and mentor, said in an interview. “Now, if all of that were true, I’d have serious questions. It’s a big ‘if’ right now.”