President Trump and chief of staff John Kelly spoke to Scott Pruitt amid reports of White House probe into EPA chief

Key Points
  • President Trump and chief of staff John Kelly held discussions with embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt this week.
  • Pruitt is facing scrutiny for renting Capitol Hill apartment linked to an energy lobbyist under favorable terms to the EPA chief.
  • Pruitt's travel expenses are under review by the EPA's inspector general and Congress.
President Donald Trump (L) listens to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt after announcing his decision that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 1, 2017.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

President Donald Trump talked to embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt on Monday evening, the White House says, following reports that the EPA chief is under review for paying cheap rent for a Washington apartment linked to an energy lobbyist.

Asked on Tuesday whether he supports Pruitt, Trump told reporters, "I hope he's going to be great."

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said chief of staff John Kelly also spoke to Pruitt on Tuesday morning. Sanders would not characterize the nature of the conversations.

According to The Associated Press, Trump called Pruitt to tell him "we've got your back" and to "keep his head up." Kelly's message was along the same lines, two administration officials told AP.

The White House is looking into Pruitt's activities following revelations that he rented a condominium on Capitol Hill owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist at Williams & Jensen, multiple news sources reported. The owner charged Pruitt just $50 a night, and only for the nights he slept there, Bloomberg reported.

Pruitt has led Trump's campaign to roll back President Barack Obama's policies to fight climate change and protect the environment. The EPA has stood with the president on issues that have divided the administration, such as pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement.

The EPA has maintained that Pruitt paid a fair market rate, but multiple news reports have pointed to rents for similar properties in the area that undercut that claim.

The rental is the latest incident that has raised questions about Pruitt's spending habits. His travel expenses are under investigation by the EPA's inspector general and Congress.

That travel includes first-class flights to his home state of Oklahoma and at least $90,000 in expenses accrued during a short stretch of January. The EPA claimed Pruitt's first-class travel was largely due to security concerns, but Pruitt has since vowed to start flying coach.

The stream of negative headlines has become a distraction for an administration that has already parted ways with its secretary of Health and Human Services and secretary of Veterans Affairs over questionable spending.

There is no sign yet that Pruitt will share the fates of those Cabinet officials, but an administration official told The Wall Street Journal that Pruitt's pool of allies is shrinking. The official said the EPA chief has alienated colleagues by jockeying for the role of attorney general, a position currently held by Jeff Sessions, who has come under frequent public criticism from Trump.

Additional reports questioning Pruitt's propriety were published over the last two days.

The New York Times reported on Monday that the EPA approved a pipeline expansion requested by a Canadian energy company, which was represented by Williams & Jensen, while Pruitt was staying in the apartment in question. The EPA and the lobbying firm told the Times there was no connection between the approval and Pruitt's accommodations.

The Atlantic reported that Pruitt went behind the White House's back to give a pair of aides pay raises worth tens of thousands of dollars after the administration had already rejected the salary bumps. Neither the White House nor the EPA responded to The Atlantic's requests for comment.