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EPA Head Scott Pruitt Has Been Embroiled in Scandals. Here’s How He’s Survived

6 minute read
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Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt has been ensnared in an ever-growing list of ethics scandals for the past several weeks, leading environmental groups, ethics watchdogs and members of Congress to call for him to resign.

But to conservative backers of President Donald Trump, the scandals pale in comparison to Pruitt’s accomplishments tearing down environmental regulations they dislike.

“At the end of the day what I’m looking at is not what they’re writing in the New York Times,” says Tim Huelskamp, a former Republican Congressman who now heads the conservative Heartland Institute. “I’m looking at what he’s doing in his job and he’s been very effective at that.”

If Pruitt survives the latest round of negative coverage, it will be because this sentiment is shared by some of Trump’s big business backers as well as voters who work in affected industries like farming and coal mining.

Pruitt’s troubles began in late March with an ABC News report that he had rented a condo in D.C. co-owned by the wife of a top energy lobbyist. They deepened with reports that he had spent $43,000 on a soundproof booth in his office in violation of spending rules, defied the White House to give large raises to top aides and sidelined agency staffers who raised concerns.

On Thursday, he’ll face tough questions about his conduct at a pair of hearings on his agency’s budget proposal on Capitol Hill. After a poor performance during a grilling on Fox News, any missteps at the hearings could put his job in peril.

But all indications right now are that Pruitt will survive the scandals, in part because the president is happy with his work.

Speaking at the daily press briefing on Monday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders gave Pruitt solid marks on his work, though she didn’t entirely dismiss his problems.

“We’re reviewing some of those allegations,” she said. “However, Administrator Pruitt has done a good job of implementing the President’s policies, particularly on deregulation; making the United States less energy-dependent and becoming more energy independent.”

Marc Short, the White House legislative director, put it more succinctly on “Meet the Press” Sunday. “Scott Pruitt is doing a phenomenal job, and the President is happy with him,” he said.

Trump, who has long been a critic of environmental regulations, has much to be pleased with. The list of policies targeted by the EPA under Pruitt includes everything from repealing the Clean Power Plan, the chief Obama-era measure aimed at fighting climate change, to reversing a ban on chlorpyrifos, a potentially hazardous pesticide. Even on Tuesday, days before Pruitt will face blistering criticism in Congressional testimony, he formally announced his latest policy move from the playbook of far-right conservative groups restricting the science the agency uses — a move scientists say would cripple the agency’s future policymaking ability.

Outside conservative circles, Pruitt has been criticized for executing some of these maneuvers in a sloppy fashion that leaves them vulnerable to legal challenges. And some observers have noted that he hasn’t completed the long and winding regulatory process that will lead to the regulations’ full repeal, which means it may be too early for his supporters to celebrate.

But these critiques set the bar too high. Pruitt has reversed the trajectory at the EPA and placed business concerns on an even playing field with environmental protection. And, as a result, the most significant rules, including the Clean Power Plan and a rule regulating waterways across the country, are essentially no more. Career staffers are in limbo after 1,000 left in the first fiscal year of the Trump Administration and the agency has slowed enforcement, says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit that represents employees at government agencies that deal with the environment.

No matter what sticks from Pruitt’s deregulatory agenda — and some of its most important elements certainly will — changing course will be difficult when the next president comes to town. “It’s true that he has suffered a few defeats,” says Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “But he’s still had a significantly negative impact on our air, our water and certainly our climate.”

More significantly for Trump, the president’s supporters are satisfied.

Coal executive Bob Murray, whose company Murray Energy donated at least $1 million to a Trump-supporting super PAC last year, dismissed the criticism as “much ado about nothing” in an interview with TIME earlier this month. Murray had asked Pruitt to repeal the Clean Power Plan along with other regulations, which Pruitt has subsequently targeted. It’s “simply a criticism by liberals of the star of the Trump administration,” he said. “He’s done more for America and the right wing than any other appointee.”

Beyond supporting the coal industry, Pruitt has taken a number of steps to help key Trump constituencies. In a trip to Morocco, he promoted U.S. liquified natural gas exports. Carl Icahn, who gave $200,000 to Trump’s victory fund in 2016, owns a controlling stake in the biggest U.S. exporter of liquefied natural gas. Dow Chemical donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee and the company’s CEO maintained close ties with Trump. Pruitt delivered the company a big win when he halted the ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide sold by the company. Pruitt’s work targeting the Waters of the U.S. rule — which places many small waterways across the country under federal regulatory control — won praise from farmers and ranchers across the country.

Even with that support, Pruitt’s staying power is remarkable in a town where even the color of your suit can draw a firestorm of media criticism.

On top of the major controversies, the public has also learned in recent weeks that Pruitt instructed his security detail to use sirens when there was no emergency, brought his security detail with him on family trips, considered hiring a private jet service at the cost of $100,000 a month, considered changing the agency’s logo on agency souvenirs to include his name and a Bible verse and spent lavishly during his time as Oklahoma attorney general.

For Pruitt’s critics, the list of scandals is mind-boggling.

“We’re looking at the worst of the worst in the Trump Administration,” says Jordan Libowitz, communications director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. “Any one of these scandals would be reason enough to fire him.”

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com