During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump promised to stock his administration with “the best people,” competent executives who would avoid the kinds of scandals and conflicts of interest that Republicans imputed to Hillary Clinton.
Then he hired Scott Pruitt.
Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, is facing more than a dozen investigations into his conduct, as well as growing calls for him to step down — or for Trump to fire him. The former Oklahoma state attorney general has said the criticism comes from Democrats opposed to his efforts to roll back Obama-era environmental rules. And while that may be true, there are signs that congressional Republicans are growing tired of the daily drumbeat of revelations about Pruitt’s behavior. Iowa’s two Republican senators, Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst, also attacked him earlier this week over his policy toward ethanol, an important product of their state that competes in the fuel market with petroleum (an important product of Pruitt’s home state).
Asked about Pruitt Friday as he left for the G7 summit in Quebec, Trump gave him a somewhat equivocal vote of confidence: “Scott Pruitt is doing a great job within the walls of the EPA,” he said. “We’re setting records. Outside, he’s being attacked very viciously by the press. I’m not saying that he’s blameless, but we’ll see what happens.”
At around the same time, Rep. Donald Beyer, D-Va., called for the FBI to investigate Pruitt for having potentially violated “criminal statutes prohibiting public corruption.”
Beyer said: “The harm Scott Pruitt is doing to the planet is a major scandal, but the recent revelations about his use and abuse of his position reached a level that we felt may have been criminal. The FBI says that ‘public corruption’ is its ‘top criminal investigative priority,’ and we feel that there is ample evidence that Pruitt has engaged in public corruption by acting to enrich himself and his family using his office and taxpayer resources. We are asking that the FBI investigate Pruitt to determine whether he violated any criminal laws, and if so that it refer them to the appropriate authorities in the Justice Department.”
Here is a guide to the various scandals and investigations involving Trump’s most embattled Cabinet member. It will be updated as necessary.
Pruitt’s around-the-clock security detail (which includes a roster of 20 agents) has cost taxpayers $3.5 million in his first year as administrator. He and his staff have justified the extraordinary measures by claiming that he has received death threats, but they have failed to produce evidence that would justify their extravagant expenditures. Documents show that one of the threats they cited was the posting in an elevator at EPA headquarters of a Newsweek cover showing Pruitt’s face on which someone had drawn a mustache.
In fact, Pruitt’s heightened security was arranged on his first day on the job by Don Benton, a Trump political appointee. And the measures were furthered bolstered by the head of Pruitt’s security detail, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta. It was subsequently revealed that Perrotta was also a longtime security adviser to David J. Pecker, publisher of the National Enquirer, a tabloid known to “catch and kill” stories that could be potentially damaging to Trump. Perrotta has since left the government.
Pruitt’s security detail followed him to family outings, include the Rose Bowl football game, a University of Kentucky baseball game and a vacation to Disneyland. That would not customarily be allowed under federal guidelines.
In perhaps his most attention-getting abuse of the privileges afforded to a Cabinet member, Pruitt used emergency sirens in Washington’s congested streets to part traffic on his way to Le Diplomate, a popular French restaurant where he had a dinner reservation. Pruitt said that neither on that nor any other instance did he personally authorize the use of sirens to expedite nonofficial travel. Emails obtained by congressional Democrats suggest otherwise. “Administrator encourages the use,” Perrotta said in one correspondence.
In 2013, the Washington Post awarded Le Diplomate three stars. It remains a trendy district destination. Chris Pine, the actor, was recently spotted there. He was not believed to be dining with Pruitt.
Government agencies are supposed to seek approval for any expenditure above $5,000. The secure-communications booth Pruitt had installed in his office cost more than eight times that much: $43,000. Pruitt does not have access to state secrets, nor does he administer the nation’s nuclear facilities (those are in the purview of the Department of Energy), so why he needed this level of security is unclear.
There was already a secure communications facility at EPA headquarters, but Pruitt found using the extant booth cumbersome. “It’s kind of hard to tell someone that’s reaching out that to have a confidential secure conversation, I’ve got to go down two floors and over two levels, and I’ll call you back,” he complained to the Washington Post.
Apparently convinced that environmentalists were out to get him, Pruitt also had his offices swept for covert listening devices. The work was done by a security firm affiliated with Perrotta. In addition, Pruitt’s office doors were outfitted with biometric locks. The measures cost $9,000. Perrotta had also recommended that a bulletproof desk be placed outside Pruitt’s office, and for him to be transported in a bulletproof vehicle. Those measures were not approved.
As one former EPA staffer put it to Politico, “Mr. Pruitt thinks he’s the president of the United States.” Some believe that Pruitt does, indeed, have presidential ambitions. Or at least did.
Believing himself to be the potential victim of angry environmentalists, Pruitt flew in first class, a luxury that cost the American taxpayer $163,000 during his first year (he also sometimes flew business class, or on military jets). The measure was approved in a memorandum from Perrotta, who worried that passengers in coach would “lash out” at Pruitt, whereas first class would provide him more privacy.
Pruitt took several trips abroad, unusual for an environmental regulator. He also ordered aides to find reasons to have him travel back to Tulsa as frequently as possible.
At a congressional hearing in May, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., mocked Pruitt for his self-importance: “What a silly reason you had to fly first class, because of a danger to you unless you flew first class. Nobody even knows who you are.”
Travelgate (foreign version)
Pruitt’s foreign travel included a trip to Morocco, where he promoted the sale of natural gas, in a departure from the generally accepted duties of the nation’s top environmental regulator. That trip was planned by lobbyist Richard Smotkin, who was subsequently hired by the Moroccan government.
Pruitt also traveled to Italy, in a trip arranged by Smotkin, the lobbyist, and Leonard Leo of the conservative Federalist Society. Pruitt’s visit to Italy included a secret dinner with Cardinal George Pell, a high-ranking Vatican official who is being investigated in his native Australia for an alleged yearslong pattern of sexual assault. It is unclear what business Pell had before the EPA, if any.
Pruitt also sought to travel to Israel, a trip arranged by GOP donor Sheldon Adelson. The trip was canceled among growing scrutiny of Pruitt’s expenses.
For a part of his time in Washington, Pruitt stayed at a C Street apartment owned by Vicki Hart, the wife of lobbyist J. Steven Hart, for what appears to be the extraordinarily low rate of $50 a night. During the time that Pruitt stayed at the Harts’ condominium, Steven Hart had business before the EPA.
Despite the sweetheart deal, Pruitt was late in paying his rent. Reports also indicated that Vicki Hart grew frustrated with Pruitt’s refusal or inability to take out the garbage. Pruitt appears also to have violated the terms of his lease by having his daughter, McKenna, stay at the apartment while she was interning at the White House. She is alleged to have damaged the apartment’s hardwood floors with her rolling suitcases.
Pruitt has since moved out.
Pruitt tasked a longtime confidant from Oklahoma who had become his scheduler at the EPA, Millan Hupp, with finding the Pruitts a permanent home in Washington. For a time, he lived in a section of the district known as U Street, but Hupp testified that Pruitt did not feel “comfortable” in the now-gentrifying but historically African-American neighborhood. Hupp was thus forced to search for an apartment once again. Pruitt admitted in congressional testimony that she did so on federal time, which would violate federal ethics rules.
As the scandals around Pruitt multiplied this spring, the administrator demoted five EPA officials who he believed were undermining his aggressive and controversial agenda. Four were career agency officials, but one was a Trump political appointee, Kevin Chmielewski, the agency’s deputy chief of staff of operations. While Chmielewski remains loyal to Trump, he has gone public about his feud with Pruitt, describing him as deceptive and vindictive. Pruitt’s allies, meanwhile, appear to have planted negative stories about Chmielewski with conservative outlets. These have failed to distract the public from Pruitt’s growing list of alleged transgressions.
In August, Pruitt recorded a video for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association — a lobbying group — calling for the repeal of the Waters of the United States rule, an Obama-era expansion of the interpretation of the Clean Water Act. It is extraordinarily unusual for an agency head to appear in an advertisement directed against the agency that he oversees. The video was recorded as part of Pruitt’s “State Action Tour,” a campaign by the EPA chief against EPA regulatory powers.
Pruitt has frequently met with heads of industry, while almost never meeting with environmentalists. He has, for example, flown to Kiawah Island off South Carolina for a meeting of the American Chemistry Council, and he has dined with coal industry chiefs at BLT Prime at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
At least one of these outings has earned Pruitt an investigation. Last spring, he successfully urged the National Mining Association to lobby the Trump administration to leave the Paris climate accords, in a seeming violation of ethics rules. The Trump administration left the Paris accords several weeks later. Pruitt has echoed Trump’s belief that climate change is not primarily caused by human activities.
Hupp and another close Oklahoma adviser, Sarah Greenwalt, received significant raises. At first, officials from the White House nixed the dramatic salary increases (from $86,460 to $144,590 for Hupp, $107,435 to $164,200 for Greenwalt), but Pruitt found a bureaucratic loophole to enact them anyway. Pruitt later claimed, in a disastrous Fox News interview, that he did not know about the raises, a tactic he has generally used in facing questions about his conduct. Documentation revealed this to be untrue.
Hupp and Greenwalt both left the EPA earlier this week.
Although all Cabinet members are allowed to decorate their offices, Pruitt appears to have taken the measure to an extreme. In addition to artwork from the Smithsonian Institution, Pruitt spent $2,500 on a framed portrait of himself and President Trump. He also purchased a standing desk and had another desk refurbished. In sum, these redecoration efforts cost $9,600. Pruitt also spent more than $1,500 on commemorative pens inscribed with his name.
Pruitt appears to have confused public service with literal servitude. He had employees bring him snacks, including Greek yogurt and nutritional bars. “He is particularly fond of finger food from the upscale eatery Dean & Deluca,” reported the Daily Beast. He also once ordered his security detail to drive around Washington in search of an expensive Ritz-Carlton moisturizing lotion he favored. It is not clear why Pruitt did not order the lotion online.
Pruitt has been investigated for a tweet that mocked Democrats after the successful Senate confirmation of Andrew Wheeler, a coal lobbyist who is now the EPA’s second in command. “The Democrats couldn’t block the confirmation of environmental policy expert and former EPA staffer under both a Republican and a Democrat president,” the tweet said. Its criticism of Democrats could be construed as a form of political speech, which official government organs or officials are not allowed to do. Wheeler has been rumored to be in line for the administrator’s job if Pruitt is fired or resigns.
The Senate does its duty: Andrew Wheeler confirmed by Senate as deputy administrator of @EPA. The Democrats couldn't block the confirmation of environmental policy expert and former EPA staffer under both a Republican and a Democrat president. https://t.co/FpkjOUtmnJ
— U.S. EPA (@EPA) April 13, 2018
Shortly after taking over the EPA, Pruitt decided to use the vast regulatory powers of his office to help his wife open a fried chicken joint. Pruitt contacted Dan T. Cathy, the chief executive of the Chick-fil-A fast food chain, asking if he’d like to engage in “a potential business opportunity.” That opportunity consisted of obtaining a lucrative Chick-fil-A franchise for Pruitt’s wife, Marlyn. Pruitt later defended this seeming misuse of his office by noting that Chick-fil-A is “a franchise of faith,” a reference to Cathy’s occasionally controversial brand of conservative Christianity. “We need more of them in Tulsa and we need more of them across the country,” Pruitt said as information about his outreach to Cathy came to light earlier this week.
In a related effort on Marlyn’s behalf, Pruitt was able to secure her work helping plan a conference at which he would be a speaker. She was paid $2,000 for the work.
In perhaps the most mystifying of the Pruitt scandals, he sent Hupp, his Oklahoma confidant, in search of a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel in Washington. It is not clear why he sought the mattress. An employee who answered the phone at Trump International confirmed to Yahoo News that the hotel does not sell mattresses.
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