White House reportedly upset about embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt's combative Fox News interview

Key Points
  • The White House is reportedly upset with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt for giving an interview to Fox News amid a controversy over his housing arrangement.
  • An EPA watchdog initially found that Pruitt did not violate federal rules by renting a condo linked to an energy lobbyist.
  • The official later clarified that his finding was based on the terms of the lease and his review did not seek to determine whether Pruitt stuck to those terms.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt calls off reporters after answering questions about the Trump administration's withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate accords as he concludes his participation during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 2, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The White House is reportedly upset that embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt gave a 25-minute interview to Fox News and believes the EPA chief was not truthful during the televised discussion.

The interview came amid a swirl of controversy over Pruitt's deal to rent a Capitol Hill condominium linked to an energy lobbyist last year.

Senior administration officials say the White House told Pruitt to avoid TV appearances, but he disregarded the order and sat for an exclusive with Fox's Ed Henry — which quickly became combative — the Washington Post reported.

Also according to the Post, senior White House officials believe Pruitt was involved in orchestrating a pay raise for two of his close aides after the administration rejected a request to increase their salary.

@jdawsey1: White House told Pruitt to not do TV but he forged ahead, per senior officials. Fox interview seen as a disaster in building, and senior White House officials believe he was involved in staff raises, contrary to what he said.

The Atlantic reported on Tuesday that EPA used a loophole to push through the salary bump. Asked by Henry about the report, Pruitt said he and his staff found out about the salary increase on Tuesday and had reversed it.

On Thursday, President Donald Trump told reporters he still has confidence in Pruitt.

To be sure, Trump has previously expressed confidence in embattled administration officials, only to part ways with them soon after. The president is known to judge his deputies and potential hires based on their performance in television appearances.

The White House and the EPA did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Pruitt's condo controversy

Fox's Henry also hammered Pruitt on his condo rental, an issue that has sparked a White House review.

An Environmental Protection Agency watchdog who determined that Pruitt's housing arrangement did not violate federal rules is now clarifying that finding, saying he did not have all the facts when he evaluated the lease in question, according to an internal memo.

The EPA's designated agency ethics official, Kevin Minoli, initially found that the rental did not constitute a gift that would violate federal ethics rules, he explained in the memo, which CNN posted online by way of the Campaign Legal Center.

Pruitt: US will stay engaged on climate change
Pruitt: US will stay engaged on climate change

However, Minoli said that determination was based on a review of the lease as it was written, as well as an analysis of similar rentals in the Capitol Hill area. He is now saying that he did not have enough factual information to determine whether Pruitt stuck to the terms of the lease. Minoli's review did not attempt to determine whether Pruitt honored those terms, which has come into question.

"Evaluating those questions would have required factual information that was not before us and the Review does not address those questions," he wrote.

The unit in question is owned by the wife of an energy lobbyist whose firm had clients with business before the agency.

Pruitt rented the apartment from Vicki Hart, the wife of Steven Hart, an energy lobbyist at Williams and Jensen, for just over a month last year. The lease allowed Pruitt to pay $50 per night for a room in the condo and only required him to pay for nights he occupied the space.

The rental has raised new questions about Pruitt's judgment and fueled speculation that he could be the next high-profile departure from the Trump administration. The EPA inspector general and Congress are already looking into issues including tens of thousands of dollars in travel expenses accrued by Pruitt and aides, as well as the installation of a $43,000 secure phone booth in the EPA chief's office.

Questions about Pruitt's lease

The watchdog's clarification came after the Campaign Legal Center questioned the EPA about reports that Pruitt's daughter had occupied another room in the condo. Under the lease, only Pruitt's room in the condo was covered by the $50-per-night rate.

"If it turns out Pruitt's daughter was staying in the other room, that's not covered by the ethics opinion because it's outside the scope of the lease," CNN quoted from a letter to the EPA from Walter Shaub, head of the Campaign Legal Center's government ethics program. "It would raise a factual question as to whether the landlord knew and permitted his use of the second room, which would be a gift."

Shaub resigned as director of the Office of Government Ethics last year over disagreements with the Trump administration.

Minoli's initial review found that there were 38 rooms for rent in a section of Capitol Hill with rates of $55 a night or less. Based on that review, he determined Pruitt paid fair market value, so the rental did not qualify as a gift.

That same review found that the average cost of renting an entire apartment in the area was $2,361 per month, making it the 19th most expensive market in the country.

White House reviewing Pruitt

It remains to be seen whether Minoli's letter will influence the White House's review. Pruitt has been on the front lines of Trump's campaign to roll back Obama-era environmental regulations.

Both Trump and chief of staff John Kelly have discussed the rental with Pruitt.

White House officials told the Associated Press that Kelly's conversation was similar to the tone of Trump's discussion with Pruitt, in which the president reportedly told Pruitt, "We've got your back." However, an administration official told the Daily Beast that Kelly asked Pruitt whether the White House should expect any further revelations and warned him that the negative news flow needed to stop.

The Atlantic story landed the same day Kelly spoke to Pruitt, followed by the contentious Fox News interview and the CNN report on Minoli's memo. On Thursday evening, The New York Times reported that at least five EPA officials, some high-ranking, had been demoted, reassigned or asked for transfers after questioning Pruitt's spending and management.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump is not okay with Pruitt's alleged behavior.

"We're reviewing this situation," she said in a press briefing. "When we have had a chance to have a deeper dive on it, we'll let you know the outcome of that, but we're currently reviewing that here at the White House."

Asked whether Trump has confidence in Pruitt, Sanders said: "The president thinks that he's doing a good job particularly on the deregulation front, but again we take this seriously."

On Thursday, Samantha Dravis, an associate administrator in the EPA's office of policy, announced her resignation. Dravis is one of Pruitt's closest aides and was a leading figure in the deregulatory agenda, according to CNN.

"It has been an honor to serve in this role at EPA, and I am enormously grateful for the opportunity," she told NBC News. "I wish Administrator Pruitt and all of the public servants at EPA the very best."

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