Trump meets with Pruitt amid mounting controversy

Posted at 3:41 PM, Apr 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-06 19:06:00-04

The couple that rented out a room to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt forced him out by changing the code on their locks after becoming increasingly frustrated with him as a tenant, a source familiar with the arrangement confirmed to CNN.

The source said the apartment has keypads, so it was merely a matter of changing the code.

Pruitt signed a lease that ran from the end of February through April 1, according to the source. Instead, Pruitt was still there until August 4, the source alleged.

Pruitt has been criticized over renting a room in Washington, DC, from a lobbyist couple whose firm has lobbied the EPA on behalf of an Oklahoma energy company, ABC News and Bloomberg have reported. CNN previously reported that the news about the arrangement has left senior White House aides exasperated.

According to Bloomberg, Pruitt leased the room for around $50 a night, only paying for nights when he stayed there. In total, Pruitt paid $6,100 for the room over six months, a rate significantly lower than market value. CNN confirmed that Pruitt’s landlords, Vicki and Steven Hart, were political donors to Pruitt when he was an Oklahoma state official.

The source said the Harts tried in a nice was way to tell Pruitt that it was time to leave, and learned of some texts Vicki Hart sent with some alternative condos where Pruitt could live. The source said the texts were meant to be a hint that it was time to go.

But the source said Pruitt still just didn’t get the picture. At that point, they changed the code on the apartment, effectively locking him out.

Politico was first to report on the changed locks.

The source said it is believed Pruitt liked the rate he was getting on the $50 per night apartment because he was getting a good deal. Despite the favorable deal, the source said Pruitt was “slow to pay” the rent.

The Harts are not commenting. CNN has reached out to the EPA for comment.

President Donald Trump met with the controversy-ridden Environmental Protection Agency head on Friday, a senior White House official confirmed to CNN.

The official said the meeting had previously been scheduled and focused on policy issues, including Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for cars and light trucks.

Their meeting comes as Pruitt has been the focal point of several headlines questioning his ethical discernment — just the latest embattled Trump administration official following a series of scandals, including Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and recently fired Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.

On Thursday, CNN reported that multiple senior EPA officials, including a career official and political appointees, were sidelined or demoted after they raised concerns or pushed back on the amount of money Pruitt had spent as head of the agency.

But despite the laundry list of controversiesthat have arisen over the past year involving Pruitt, the White House says the President is continuing to stand behind him, lauding his work at the head of the EPA.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters during Friday’s press briefing that Trump believes Pruitt has done a good job at the EPA and “restored it back to its original purpose of protecting the environment. It’s got unnecessary regulations out of the way.”

She said the administration is continuing to review the reports of Pruitt’s spending and misconduct.

When asked if the President is being advised to fire Pruitt, Sanders said, “No one other than the President has the authority to hire and fire members of the Cabinet. It’s a decision he’ll make.”

Sanders wouldn’t address the specifics a potential Pruitt firing. “I’m not going to walk through hypotheticals until we have time to go through a full review. That’s what we’re doing right now. But again, the President thinks he’s done a good job on the purpose of carrying out the goals of the EPA,” she said.

The White House’s support comes as Trump has been hearing directly from supporters of Pruitt, including oil and gas magnate Harold Hamm.

A person familiar with the conversation said Hamm urged the President in at least one conversation this week to consider what substantive moves Pruitt has made at the EPA when determining his fate, not simply the scandals making daily headlines. Hamm is the latest in a string of conservative supporters to come to Pruitt’s defense, including The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.

Hamm, a major Trump donor who sat in a VIP box at the President’s inauguration, is the founder and CEO of Continental Resources. He’s one of the leading Oklahoma oil and gas executives who had a close relationship with Pruitt.

Two Republicans close to the White House say the conversation with Hamm — a trusted friend and outside adviser of Trump, who he once considered nominating as energy secretary — underscores why the Pruitt scandal is so different than other embattled Cabinet secretaries.

“His work at the EPA is more important than most anything else,” one Republican familiar with the President’s thinking said.

Pruitt has dutifully rolled back many Obama-era regulations. It’s not lost on the President that confirming a new EPA administrator would be considerably challenging and would take months — if it could even be done before the midterms.

EPA chief’s long list of controversies

A steady stream of negative headlines involving Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt in recent weeks and months has official Washington wondering whether the embattled agency chief can hold onto his job.

During his time at EPA, Pruitt has worked to carry out key elements of President Donald Trump’s agenda, overseeing a rollback of Obama-era environmental regulations. But he has also been caught up in a series of unfolding controversies over everything from first-class travel, security expenses, and a decision to rent a room in Washington, DC, tied to an energy lobbyist.

When Pruitt took up his post at EPA, he was already a controversial figure. As Oklahoma attorney general, he sued the agency he now leads over environmental regulations and suggested that the debate over global warming is “far from settled.”

Here’s a look at the lengthy list of controversies and allegations that Pruitt has become embroiled in during his time at the administration:

• Multiple senior EPA officials, including a career official and political appointees, were sidelined or demoted after they raised concerns or pushed back on the amount of money Pruitt has spent as EPA chief on expenses such as travel as well as his management of the agency, two sources confirmed to CNN.

An EPA spokesman has disputed the claims, calling the employees in question “disgruntled.”

• In late March, ABC News reported that Pruitt stayed in a condo co-owned by Vicki Hart, a lobbyist whose husband, J. Steven Hart, works for a firm that has lobbied on energy issues. A Bloomberg report said the deal on the condo gave Pruitt a price of $50 a night for a bedroom, and only on nights when he slept there.

CNN has reportedthat White House officials are exasperated by the housing controversy.

The Washington Post reported that Pruitt knew and approved of a plan to grant large raises to two aides — a timeline that appears to clash with claims the EPA administrator made in an interview with Fox News earlier in this week. During the interview, Pruitt said he only found out that aides got raises the day before. In the interview, Pruitt said the raises “should not have happened.” The Atlantic has reported that Pruitt defied the White House to grant the raises and a pair of Senate Democrats are now calling for an investigation.The inspector general was already auditing how Pruitt’s leadership uses “administratively determined positions.”

• Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehousesent a letter to the inspector general of the EPA that said Pruitt’s constant security included even personal trips to Disneyland and the Rose Bowl.

• The Environmental Integrity Project obtained heavily redacted documents from the EPA that showed the agency spent more than $30,000 on security for Pruitt’s 2017 trip to Italy.

• A report from The Washington Post in mid-March said documents the EPA provided to Congress outlined further travel expenses from Pruitt, totaling about $68,000 and including a nearly $20,000, four-day trip to Morocco and a series of first class flights.

CNN reported in early March that Pruitt was one of four Cabinet-level officials the White House scolded in February over stories about questionable ethics at their agencies.

• In February, questions over Pruitt’s travel prompted House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy to announce an inquiry into Pruitt’s practices, and in response to the committee’s request for documents, the EPA did not appear to turn over travel waivers granted to Pruitt for first-class travel.

• Pruitt defended his first-class travel in February by saying it was for security purposes, citing the “toxic environment” in politics and implying he was less likely to face threats in a first-class crowd.

• EPA documents reviewed by CNNin February showed attorneys for Pruitt’s office justifying a series of charter flights last summer, including some $14,000 expended on travel around Oklahoma.

• In early October, the EPA inspector general said it was expanding its probe into Pruitt’s travel, and the EPA told CNN that Pruitt used both a private plane and military jet to travel four times instead of flying commercial — at a price of $60,000.

• Government records showed the EPA granted a roughly $25,000 contract last August for a highly secure, sound-proof booth — known as a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) — for Pruitt. Former EPA employees said the agency had already maintained a private room.

• In August, the inspector general for the EPA said it was investigating Pruitt’s travel back home to Oklahoma after a hotline complaint and expressions of concern from Congress followed travel records obtained by the Environmental Integrity Project that showed Pruitt spent an extensive amount of time traveling.

• EPA is fighting a lawsuit from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility that alleges the Pruitt administration is deliberately avoiding creating written records of meetings and decisions (so that there are no documents subject to leaking or FOIA) and that Pruitt “uses phones other than his own to deal with important EPA-related matters so the calls do not show up in his call logs.”