The day after Scott Pruitt was called by President Donald Trump, who reportedly told him to “keep your chin up” amid a torrent of controversy, the EPA chief got another phone call from a top White House official that was noticeably less encouraging.
Chief of Staff John Kelly wanted to know, after revelations had surfaced that Pruitt had been renting living space in Washington, D.C., from a pair of high-powered lobbyists—one of whom was lobbying his agency at the time—what other shoes, if any, were going to drop. Is there anything else that “hasn’t come out” yet, Kelly asked, according to three Trump administration sources. The chief of staff then impressed upon Pruitt that, though he has the full public confidence of President Trump for now, the flow of negative and damning stories needed to stop soon, as one source briefed on the contents of the call described.
“[It] was not a friendly buck-up call at all,” is how another Trump administration official described the conversation to The Daily Beast.
Shortly thereafter, The Atlantic reported that Pruitt had defied the White House and directed his staff to give raises to a pair of employees under an obscure provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which gives the administrator wide latitude over short-term staffing decisions prompted by an emergency or other unexpected development. (Pruitt denied any knowledge of the raises in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday afternoon.)
According to two sources with knowledge of the situation, Kelly and other senior White House officials were blindsided by major details in The Atlantic’s article, left frustrated and wondering if Pruitt and the EPA still weren’t conveying damaging news to the West Wing.
The account of that Kelly-Pruitt exchange—as conveyed to The Daily Beast—notably differs from earlier reports on the exchange, which described it largely as cordial and encouraging. That may be because even those inside the administration say it is difficult to get a firm read on the current relationship between the White House and the EPA, save for that there is a growing level of discord between officials at each entity. Multiple officials contacted for this story acknowledged that there are several competing narratives emerging this week within the EPA and West Wing regarding even the tenor of the phone call and the current state of Pruitt-world.
As controversies surrounding Pruitt proliferate, he has found himself in an all-too-familiar position for senior Trump officials: unsure of his longevity, receiving assurances in public and slight admonishments in private, all the time at the mercy of a temperamental president’s whims.
Some EPA officials remain uneasy with elements of the White House, leading most recently to the EPA not responding to a request from the West Wing to turn over records related to Pruitt’s official travel habits for fear that they’d be strategically leaked, as The Daily Beast previously reported. On Monday, Politico reported that Kelly has even weighed having Pruitt sacked in “the coming months as part of a wave of ousters of top officials.”
But EPA officials know that the president often charts his own course in high-profile staffing decisions, and feel that, regardless of the views of others in the West Wing, Pruitt will be just fine if he can stay in Trump’s good graces. Asked about the situation at a Wednesday afternoon briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that “we’re reviewing the situation” and that “when we have had the chance to have a deeper dive on it, we’ll let you know the outcomes of that.”
Pruitt owes his good standing with the president primarily to his success in implementing the Trump administration’s environmental agenda, which has entailed significant rollbacks of Obama-era regulations designed to curb pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Though other Cabinet officials have been ousted for ethics problems—many similar to the ones facing Pruitt— their departures were due more to their limited success in effectively implementing the White House’s policy objectives. Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned in the wake of a failure to fully repeal the Affordable Care Act. And former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin faced significant opposition from White House officials and outside allies who felt that he was not aggressive enough introducing private market reforms to the troubled veterans health system.
Whether Pruitt can maintain his standing with the president even with relative success on the policy front is still an open question, however. That’s particularly true in the wake of the story in The Atlantic, which suggested that Pruitt and his staff circumvented White House staffing directives.
Making matters worse for Pruitt was a Wednesday report from The Washington Post that said Pruitt had used the same Safe Drinking Water Act provision to hire a number of employees absent White House input, including two former lobbyists who might otherwise have been barred from the posts by ethics rules imposed by Trump by executive order weeks after taking office.
“As long as [Trump] feels Pruitt is effective and on his side, he’s probably fine,” one source close to the administration told The Daily Beast. But “if it starts looking like he’s sidestepping the president, that could be fatal.”