EPA staff in ‘despair’ after Pruitt blame game

 In Politics

Scott Pruitt may have survived his testimony on Capitol Hill, but he’s coming back to a further enraged and demoralized Environmental Protection Agency staff.

Several current and former EPA officials and other people close to the agency said Pruitt did himself no favors with his congressional testimony Thursday, in which he blamed his aides for installing a $43,000 privacy booth in his office and approving more than $100,000 in first-class flights that he took last year. Pruitt also denied knowing key details about raises that his top staff received last year. And he declined to defend his former policy chief against Democrats’ accusations that she had failed to show up for work for three months, even though she and Pruitt had been photographed attending the same meeting during the period in question.

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In conversations with 11 people who know the atmosphere inside EPA, including Republican political appointees, a handful said his refusal to grovel may have pleased President Donald Trump. But others said his strategy was appalling to the current and former staffers who found themselves thrown under the bus.

“I think his credibility is damaged, and whether or not he gets fired by a tweet isn’t going to diminish the fact that his credibility has been seriously damaged by all of this,” one person close to the administration told POLITICO. “It shows a real lack of leadership that he did not defend, or blamed, his staff. These are the people that he’s asking for loyalty from. These are the people that are defending him. He’s not returning the favor. That’s not leadership.”

A current EPA official said Friday that employees are veering between “despair” and “embarrassment,” and Pruitt’s televised performance did not help.

“I will tell you, it did not go unnoticed from people who watched the hearing that he did not take responsibility on the policy pieces” of the testimony, the official said. “It was not lost on us on the stuff we know about that he used very careful language, he was parsing his words, that some might say he did not speak the whole truth.”

One former EPA official said even political aides are “sick of Pruitt constantly putting himself first,” and “putting himself before the president’s agenda.”

“He’s rarely been interested in selling regulatory reform as improving Americans’ lives, and is far more interested in saving his political career,” the former official said.

But Trump has shown no signs of abandoning his EPA chief, who has won the strong backing of conservative groups with his efforts to erase Obama-era environmental regulations. So far, that has outweighed the anger of White House staff members and exasperation of key Republican lawmakers at Pruitt’s series of controversies over luxe travel, extensive security, a below-market D.C. condo rental from a lobbyist and history of questionable real estate deals in his native Oklahoma.

A senior EPA official said Pruitt’s strategy of fighting the allegations was designed to appeal to Trump, who disdains members of his team who appear weak on television.

“They like fighters no matter what,” the official said. “No matter what, fight. That’s what we’ve been conditioned to.”

The official predicted that the White House takeaway from the hours of hearings would be that Republican lawmakers stood with Pruitt, while Democrats squandered their opportunity by spending too much time criticizing Pruitt’s deregulatory agenda — which Trump supports — rather than hitting him for the ethics issues.

“Any audience would say the White House saw a Republican bench entirely supportive of him,” the EPA source said. “On the Democrat side, the White House also saw Democrats who used half their time to criticize policies he’s doing that the White House likes. If they wanted to land punches, why do you ask about these policies? That’s not going to do it for you.”

Pruitt ally Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) took that message from Thursday’s hearings, despite saying earlier in the week that he was troubled by some recent allegations about the EPA leader’s past dealings in Oklahoma. “After a full day of mudslinging and partisan questioning from the Democratic members of the committees, it is clear that the only fault they could find with Scott Pruitt is that he’s successfully ending the EPA’s history of overreach and over-regulation,” Inhofe said in a statement Friday.

Still, the senior EPA official said, Pruitt’s relatively good day in Congress could be “washed away” if his inconsistencies about what he knew about the raises generates a steady narrative that he lied to the White House, as at least one CNN pundit alleged.

And until Trump weighs in, the tension around Pruitt at EPA will remain high.

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