Embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt fired back at critics Wednesday and said controversies over his travel and living accommodations are being used as weapons to distract from the progress he has made implementing President Trump’s agenda.
“I think it’s a focus of distraction. I think it’s noise. It’s been noisy and competitive since Day One, because this agency has been a bastion of liberalism since Day One,” Mr. Pruitt told the “Mack On Politics” podcast at The Washington Times.
“As we are making progress there and also reducing the regulatory burden, it is infuriating to those that have dominated and controlled the agency for years,” he said.
“Focus on results. Keep your head down, stay focused, and I have to tell myself that today,” he said. “We are getting things done, and that’s what’s driving these folks crazy, and I will tell you the truth, and the facts are on our side.”
Mr. Pruitt has come under increasing pressure to resign — including calls from two House Republicans this week — amid revelations that he rented a $50-per-night condo room from the wife of a prominent oil industry lobbyist, and for his use of first-class flights and a private taxpayer-funded security detail for personal family vacations.
He also has faced criticism for sidestepping the White House and pushing for raises for two top aides — though he denied knowing about those raises until news broke this week.
The EPA chief appeared confident in his future during his interview with The Times, but White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Mr. Trump is not OK with Mr. Pruitt’s reported condo deal and that the situation is being examined.
“We’re currently reviewing that here at the White House,” she told reporters. “The president thinks he’s done a good job, particularly on the deregulation front, but again, we take this seriously.”
Indeed, Mr. Pruitt has by all accounts been one of the most successful members of the Trump Cabinet. He has undone the Clean Power Plan, Waters of the U.S. rule, and other major pieces of environmental regulation undertaken by the Obama administration. He was also one of the loudest voices pushing Mr. Trump to pull out of the Paris climate accord, and his side of the debate ultimately won out when the president scrapped the deal in June.
Just this week, Mr. Pruitt announced that the EPA would nullify the Obama administration’s update to the fuel efficiency program known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE standards, axing the requirement that car and light truck fleets average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
“What has happened over the years as these CAFE standards have been instituted, they’ve been instituted to try to coerce … people into buying vehicles they don’t want to buy,” he said. “We’re going to get it right.”
But even amid the policy movement he has made in a little over 12 months since his confirmation, Mr. Pruitt’s opponents on Capitol Hill and in the environmental movement have zeroed in on his ethical controversies in an effort to push him out.
More than dozen members of the House, including Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both Florida Republicans, have said he should resign.
A coalition of 13 environmental and liberal groups this week also have ramped up calls for Mr. Pruitt to step aside.
“The scandals surrounding Scott Pruitt are a pressure cooker waiting to burst,” said Sara Chieffo, vice president for government affairs at the League for Conservation Voters. “His D.C.-lobbyist power-couple landlords aside, any other Cabinet official would be shown the door for going around the White House’s back to give exorbitant raises to two top aides that the president had previously declined. Scott Pruitt’s days running the EPA should be numbered. But if he does manage to survive, that’s dark evidence of how deep in industry’s pocket this administration truly is.”
On the housing question, Mr. Pruitt rented the condo at well below market value for about six months from Vicki Hart, the wife of Steven Hart, a lobbyist who advocates for Exxon Mobil and other powerful companies in the oil and gas industry.
That arrangement has led to questions about whether he got the deal in exchange for favorable treatment of the oil sector. Indeed, Mr. Pruitt has taken a host of deregulatory actions that the oil industry had sought.
But the EPA chief stressed that the agency’s ethics office reviewed and signed off on the deal and that it was simply a temporary situation as he moved from Oklahoma to Washington.
“I was living out of a suitcase,” he said. “And I literally had access to one room in a unit. … It was like an Airbnb situation, where I paid for it when I was there, I paid for the small space I had, everything else was common area access.”
Inside the EPA, Mr. Pruitt said, there are officials more sympathetic to the Obama-era view of the energy sector and of environmental protection, which he said focuses more on the “prohibition” of fossil fuels than on tackling real issues such as lead contamination in water.
“There are individuals — their worldview on these matters are different, and that can cause delay, and I’ve had to push through,” he said. “Prohibition is never what we’ve been as a country. … Our goal should be stewardship, not prohibition. I believe to whom much is given, much is required.”