Scott Pruitt Is a Pariah for GOP Lawmakers, but His Scandals Aren’t Yet Moving the 2018 Needle

It’s a rarity for elected Republicans to publicly cross the president, but some are doing just that and criticizing his embattled EPA chief—though voters don’t seem to care.

Andrew Harrer/Getty

A death by a thousand cuts inherently takes time. And Scott Pruitt’s political demise has proved no different.

The embattled EPA administrator has endured months of self-inflicted scandals and the negative news coverage that comes with it. Through it all, he has clung to his post.

But the cuts are beginning to cause substantial bleeding. And it has become increasingly apparent that national and elected Republicans are fed up.

“Most of us have been, in the case of the president’s appointments, deferring to the president. But it does seem like we answer a lot of questions about Scott Pruitt. It does get old after a while,” Sen. John Thune (R-SD), a member of GOP leadership, told The Daily Beast.

Sentiments like Thune’s may seem like a wrist-slap compared to the pile of alleged offenses at which they are directed. But it is remarkably rare for elected Republicans, particularly so close to an election, to publicly cross this president and the team he has assembled. That the No. 3 Republican in the Senate is the one speaking out underscores the exasperation many feel about the near daily drama surrounding Pruitt.

On Wednesday, two major conservative media organs, Fox News host Laura Ingraham and the National Review magazine, called on him to resign. While no elected official went quite as far—they often pepper their comments with notes of appreciation for the job Pruitt is doing in carrying out a conservative environmental agenda—some hinted they were nearing the end of their rope.

“It’s becoming a drag on his ability to do his work. I think that’s where the real issue is,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD), who chairs the subcommittee responsible for oversight of the EPA, said in an interview. “And I think that’s going to be the question he’s going to be asked time and time again: Is this affecting your ability to do your job, having these constant issues come up on a personal basis?”

Even Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), a close Pruitt ally and one of his political mentors, seemed eager to put the barrage of negative stories about Pruitt behind him.

I’m tired of it. And I have not heard from him personally on these, and I have some questions I’d like to ask him about these accusations.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK)

“I’m tired of it. And I have not heard from him personally on these, and I have some questions I’d like to ask him about these accusations,” Inhofe told The Daily Beast. “So I don’t know for sure how many of them are true or how many of them are just a result of the press being after one person more than I ever remember.”

Pruitt has even lost favor inside the White House, where some top aides have grown frustrated with the head-scratching headlines he seems to produce—from his procurement of a used mattress to his attempts to buy high-end lotion to his mixing of family business and political donors.

But the EPA chief remains, through it all, in relatively good standing with the president himself. Two sources familiar with their relationship say that, at least as of a few weeks ago, Trump and Pruitt were talking regularly on the phone. Topics included the state of the administration. But the two have truly bonded over a mutual distrust of the political press, with Trump seeing echoes of his own self-perceived victimhood in what Pruitt has endured.

“They mostly talk about how the media is out to get him,” said one of the two sources, adding that there was a shared sense of “mutual persecution.”

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There is no more valuable currency in contemporary Republican politics than Trump’s personal favor. And for that reason alone, administration officials and top Republicans concede, Pruitt still has a job.

“Ultimately you have an audience of one as a presidential appointee,” said one high-ranking Republican fundraiser and operative.

But other factors have allowed Pruitt to survive the incredible, seemingly bottomless, flow of scandals. Chief among them is that his political toxicity doesn’t extend far beyond Washington. While Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was, and remains, a bête noire and galvanizing force for Democrats, top Republican campaign officials told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that Pruitt’s struggles had hardly resonated in midterm races.

“Not at all,” one top GOP campaign hand said.

Anecdotal data from the Democratic side confirmed as much. One Democratic campaign group recently ran digital ads going after Pruitt. But officials pulled the spots after they performed poorly. A search of ads that were run recently on Facebook revealed that only a handful of Democratic lawmakers—and none in tight races—were going after the EPA chief. Those who were targeting Pruitt included Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Matt Morgan, a House candidate in northern Michigan—both of whom spotlighted state-related issues and not ethical foibles.

With the political fallout somewhat contained, many Republicans have chosen to duck the Pruitt matter entirely, wary of offending those allies still standing behind the EPA chief. And there are allies beyond Trump.

Pruitt remains well regarded within the energy industry, whose regulations he has helped slash, and within conservative legal circles, where he was once a top official. (He led the Republican Attorneys General Association and is remarkably close to leadership at the influential Federalist Society.) He also has ties to top GOP political operations. One of his former super PACs, Liberty 2.0, made a $50,000 donation to the Senate Leadership Fund PAC, a key organ within the GOP campaign infrastructure. And while at the EPA, Pruitt was approached about having a meeting with the group’s CEO, Steven Law, according to emails obtained by The Sierra Club, an environmental group. It’s unclear if the meeting ever took place.

For these reasons, Pruitt defenders say it is premature to write his obituary. If an ax were coming, the theory goes, it would have fallen by now. And yet, even the truest of believers and the biggest of boosters can’t help but acknowledge that they are growing tired of watching that ax grow closer and closer.

“It’s become a drag because there are things that I want him to be doing in conjunction with his job. It’s very difficult to do that when you find yourself on the defensive all the time,” said Inhofe. “And I’d like to have him get off the defense and start doing his job, and quit worrying about all these allegations.”