Embattled EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testified before Congress on Thursday that at least some of the mounting allegations of ethics violations leveled against him are not true. The tone of the hearing largely came down along party lines, with most Democrats grilling Pruitt about the accusations and Republicans defending the Trump deputy.
Pruitt, who is the subject of at least five investigations, has come under fire for renting a Washington apartment linked to an energy lobbyist and for allegedly retaliating against EPA staff who challenged his management and the way he spent taxpayer money.
The EPA chief on Thursday admitted to lawmakers that he faced a "learning process" and that he himself is solely responsible for identifying and correcting faults found by Congress and independent bodies.
But Pruitt quickly sought to cast doubt on news reports that have engulfed him and his agency in claims of self-dealing and wasteful spending.
"Facts are facts, and fiction is fiction and a lie doesn't become truth just because it appears in the front page of the newspaper," he said in testimony before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's subcommittee on environment.
"Much of what has been targeted towards me and my team has been half-truths or at best stories that have been so twisted that they do not resemble reality," he said.
Pruitt said "attacks" on the EPA were really attacks on the Trump administration's agenda, which largely focuses on rolling back Obama-era environment rules and reducing regulations.
Democrats wasted no time grilling Pruitt on the reports as questioning got underway but the administrator repeatedly refused to answer their questions directly. The first question put to him by a Democrat regarded a report the EPA went behind the White House's back to push through pay hikes for two long-time Pruitt aides.
Asked by the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, Paul Tonko, whether he authorized his chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, to approve the raises, Pruitt refused to answer "yes" or "no." When pressed, he repeated that he had delegated authority to Jackson.
Tonko also asked Pruitt about an email from one of the two aides, in which she said Pruitt was aware of and supported the raises.
Pruitt said he was not aware of the size of the salary increases — which amounted to tens of thousands of dollars — or that the EPA had used emergency powers under the Clean Air Act to circumvent the White House's refusal to grant the raises.
Rep. Frank Pallone, the ranking Democrat of the Energy and Commerce Committee, asked if it was correct that EPA management had retaliated against at least five staff members, including those who pushed back on hefty travel expenses that are now the subject of multiple investigations.
"I don't ever recall a conversation to that end," Pruitt said.
When Pallone said he would take that as a "yes," Pruitt responded, "It shouldn't be taken as a yes."
Several lawmakers also inquired about the installation of a secure phone booth in Pruitt's office at a cost of more than $43,000. The U.S. Government Accountability Office last week determined that the EPA broke the law by approving the expense without Congress's permission.
Pruitt said he instructed his staff to install the booth, but claimed he was never made aware of the cost. He said career officials had handled the purchase from beginning to end.
One Republican, Rep. Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania, said Pruitt deserved opprobrium for some of his spending decisions and pressed him on several of his earlier answers during testimony.
"I've reviewed your answers and I find some of them lacking or insufficient," he said. "I believe you've ... not demonstrated the requisite degree of good judgment required of an appointed executive branch official on some of these spending items."
Republican Leonard Lance of New Jersey also took a stern tone with Pruitt, pushing back on the need for the secure phone booth in his office. When Pruitt told Lance that he was unsure if any of his predecessors had sought a similar setup, Lance informed Pruitt that former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman said she had not.
"She has indicated that she does not think that this was appropriate, and respectfully, I do not think it is appropriate," he said. "I think there are already secure locations, and I think it was a waste of funds."
Five Republican lawmakers have joined 170 Democrats in calling for Pruitt to step down.
Many Republican lawmakers applied a light touch or criticized their Democratic colleagues for questioning Pruitt about the allegations.
The GOP chair of the subcommittee, Rep. John Shimkus, did not ask any specific questions about the reports, but gave Pruitt just under two minutes to "address those issues as you will."
Rep. Greg Walden, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, only asked Pruitt to commit to providing the committee with any documents the EPA turns over to other investigators.
Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia called the Democrats' line of questioning "a classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism," while Ohio Republican Bill Johnson said the hearing had turned into a "personal attack" on Pruitt and a "shameful attempt to denigrate the work that's being done at the EPA."
Texas Republican Joe Barton opened his line of questioning by telling Pruitt he has become a "victim of Washington politics" who has been targeted for "fighting some of the Obama administration's radical clean air policies."
"If you can't debate the policies in Washington, you attack the personality and that's what's happening to you," he said.
Barton asked Pruitt about the Capitol Hill condo he rented from the wife of an energy lobbyist whose firm had business before the EPA. Barton insinuated that the arrangement had been cleared by an ethics official, which Pruitt confirmed.
In fact, the watchdog issued a subsequent memo saying he could not clear Pruitt of wrongdoing because he did not have enough information in light of reports that Pruitt broke the terms of his lease. Neither Barton nor Pruitt mentioned the follow-up report.