Scott Pruitt, EPA chief, bobs and weaves, but Democrats still land blows in Senate hearing

National Correspondent
Yahoo News

In his first appearance before a Senate committee, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt faced withering questions from Democrats about his ethical lapses, even as Republicans sought to shield him.

The hearing before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the interior and the environment was supposed to be about the EPA’s budget request, but it was plain that Democrats would use the opportunity to question Pruitt’s conduct and character as the nation’s top environmental officer. He faces more than a dozen investigations into allegations including overspending on security measures and renting an apartment from a lobbyist.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on budget on Capitol Hill on May 16, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on budget on Capitol Hill on May 16, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Before the hearing began, the room filled with activists and reporters. The subcommittee’s chairwoman, Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, noted that budget hearings rarely elicited such public interest. In seeking to carry out the Trump administration’s agenda, Pruitt has emerged as a bête noire to the left, which regards him as a puppet of oil and gas barons. It is his conduct, however, that has emboldened critics, and even some Republicans are weary of his constant troubles. President Trump is not yet among them, having expressed confidence in Pruitt only days ago.

This was Pruitt’s second trip down Pennsylvania Avenue, where the EPA headquarters are located, to Capitol Hill. Late last month, he appeared before two separate House committees, where he faced tough questioning from Democrats. Since then, Pruitt has been described as increasingly isolated within the agency he runs.

Wednesday’s appearance wasn’t much better, even if it was lightly attended by legislators. He faced tough questioning from three Democrats on the subcommittee: ranking member Tom Udall of New Mexico, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont. The three forced Pruitt to confront uncomfortable allegations about the alleged chronic misuse of government resources. Pruitt, a former attorney general of Oklahoma, responded, sometimes testily, with what amounted to carefully worded evasions.

“This guy is a pretty slippery character,” Udall admitted after the hearing, in response to a question from Yahoo News about whether Pruitt had answered any of the senator’s questions honestly.

Sen. Tom Udall questions EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt during a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C., on May 16, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Sen. Tom Udall questions EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt during a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C., on May 16, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Murkowski had opened the hearing by praising Pruitt’s record of repealing or delaying Obama-era regulations like the Waters of the United States rule (also known as the Clean Water Rule), which she said was overly restrictive. However, she also alluded to a “series of issues” that had arisen over his use of taxpayer resources and funds. Murkowski attributed some of the near-daily reports about Pruitt’s behavior to a “gotcha age” of political reporting, but she refused to absolve him of all responsibility, citing his close ties to lobbyists and penchant for first-class travel.

“I do think there are legitimate questions that need to be answered,” she told the administrator.

Udall followed and was not nearly so circumspect. “Every day there seems to be a new scandal, with you at dead center,” he said to Pruitt. “Your tenure at the EPA is a betrayal of the American people.” He noted that while Pruitt was a champion of states’ rights — or “cooperative federalism,” as he calls it — his budget proposed a drastic reduction in the funds sent to states for environmental work. “This isn’t cooperative federalism,” Udall said, in a menacing drawl. “It’s flat-out abandonment.”

For the most part, however, the Democrats sought to pin down just how much Pruitt knew about specific allegations: that he demanded an around-the-clock security detail to fend off threats to his life; his penchant for first-class airplane travel, supposedly also for the sake of security; the installation of a $43,000 private communications booth in his office; using emergency lights to travel the congested streets of Washington, D.C., including on one occasion to a meal at Le Diplomate, a popular French restaurant; a tweet sent from the EPA account that seemed to taunt Democrats over the confirmation of a Pruitt deputy.

Pruitt anticipated these questions in his opening statement and tried — as he had during House testimony — to blame agency staff for the troubles that could doom his tenure at the EPA. “Processes at the agency were not properly instituted,” he said, his use of the passive voice suggesting that he was helpless in the matter. “I share your concerns about some of these decisions,” Pruitt added. Earlier this week, the EPA opened an Office of Continuous Improvement whose Orwellian title appears to recognize the need to dispel the thickening cloud of scandal.

This hardly satisfied the Democrats. Udall lit into Pruitt about “this behavior with the sirens around town,” asking him bluntly if he’d ever used emergency lights for non-emergency reasons. Pruitt retreated, as he often did during the lengthy hearing, into a pose of lawyerly deniability. Protocols regarding the use of sirens, Pruitt said, “were followed to the best of my knowledge by each of the agents that served me.”

“OK, here we go,” Udall said in response, eliciting laughter from the audience. During questioning, Pruitt said he could not “recall” ever asking for such measures, at which point Udall promptly introduced into the record an email from the former head of Pruitt’s security detail, Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta, that strongly suggested the use of emergency lights had been explicitly requested by Pruitt.

Members of the audience hold up signs that read “Fire Him” as Pruitt testifies before a Senate subcommittee on May 16, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)
Members of the audience hold up signs that read “Fire Him” as Pruitt testifies before a Senate subcommittee on May 16, 2018. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

Mississippi’s Cindy Hyde-Smith and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, both Republicans, and Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, gave Pruitt an easier time, focusing their questions in part on the Superfund program and other environmental concerns.

Time and again, Udall who proved Pruitt’s most consistent tormentor, returning to the issue of Pruitt’s security detail, as well as his rental of a Capitol Hill room from a lobbyist. “To me, that’s the exact swamp that President Trump was trying to get rid of,” Udall said, referencing Trump’s campaign promise to shutter the revolving door between Capitol Hill and the lobbying firms of K Street. By all indications, that door remains as operational as ever. In the midst of the contentious exchange, Udall managed to extract from Pruitt the admission that a trusted adviser from Oklahoma who followed him to the EPA, Millan Hupp, helped Pruitt look for a permanent house in Washington. Pruitt said she did so “on personal time.”

By the hearing’s third hour, it was becoming clear that Pruitt would cede little ground, even as the barrage from Democrats continued. Republicans, meanwhile, did what they could to shield him.

“Fish grinding,” Murkowski said when it was her turn to speak. “I ask every year.” She then followed with a discussion of seafood effluent, to Pruitt’s likely relief. He can also take comfort in knowing that he will probably not be summoned back up the Hill anytime soon.

During the press conference Udall held afterward, his Democratic colleague Van Hollen said there was “a growing recognition among Republican senators that Administrator Pruitt is toxic” and “hurting the administration by betraying the public trust.” Van Hollen mused that Republicans may simply hope “somehow Pruitt goes away and resigns.” There is no indication that Scott Pruitt plans to do so.

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