President Trump continues to offer his support to embattled Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt, this time during a press briefing at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Wednesday afternoon.
Appearing at FEMA to receive a briefing on the ongoing 2018 hurricane season, Trump issued praise for a number of present cabinet members, including Pruitt. The EPA administrator is the subject of more than a dozen federal investigations concerning his financial and ethical decisions as head of the agency.
The praise for Pruitt comes at the same times as news emerges that two of Pruitt’s top aides have resigned. Meanwhile, Republicans blocked a Democratic effort on Wednesday to increase funding for the EPA’s watchdog tasked with investigating Pruitt’s scandals.
Barely acknowledging the scandals, Trump said on Wednesday: “[The] EPA is doing really really well, someone has to say that about you a little bit, you know that, Scott.”
The president then praised Pruitt’s leadership and tenure. “People are really impressed with the job that’s being done at the EPA,” Trump asserted, before continuing on to addressing other cabinet members.
Those comments come in the wake of new controversies regarding Pruitt’s actions as EPA administrator. A number of new scandals have emerged in the past four weeks, including revelations on Tuesday that Pruitt enlisted an EPA aide to help his wife Marlyn find a job with the fast food franchise Chick-fil-A.
According to internal emails first reported by the Washington Post, Pruitt’s scheduler emailed Chick-fil-A chief executive Dan Cathy to discuss “a potential business opportunity”, later revealed to be an attempt to secure Marlyn Pruitt a Chick-fil-A restaurant. Although she never completed the application required for the position, experts told the Post that the email request itself could constitute a misuse of public office.
Pruitt himself appeared unbothered by such concerns when queried by a reporter on Wednesday.
“I think with great change comes, you know, I think, opposition. I mean there’s significant change that’s happening for us, not only at the EPA but across this Administration, and it’s needed, and, uh, look, my wife is an entrepreneur herself,” Pruitt said. “I love, she loves, we love Chick-Fil-A as a, as a franchise of faith, and it’s one of the best in the country, and so, that’s something we were very excited about.”
Only a few days earlier, on Saturday, the New York Times reported that Pruitt attended a December University of Kentucky basketball game as a guest of coal baron Joseph W. Craft III. A day prior, emails obtained via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit by the Sierra Club revealed that the EPA administrator had spent $3,230 at a Washington, D.C.-based jewelry store using agency funds. Of that, $1,560 was spent on 12 fountain pens — approximately $130 per pen.
Pruitt also appointed Steven D. Cook, a former chemical industry lawyer linked to at least 36 Superfund pollution sites, as head of the EPA’s Superfund Task Force last week. That announcement came shortly before the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) voted to review a number of regulatory rollbacks instigated under Pruitt, including efforts to gut tailpipe emission restrictions.
The EPA administrator is already under fire for a number of prior decisions, including a sweetheart condo deal arranged with the wife of an energy lobbyist. The lobbyist, J. Steven Hart, had official business before the EPA during the time of the deal and attempted to recommend potential candidates for positions with the SAB during that same timeframe.
Pruitt has also faced criticism for staggering 24-hour security costs and the installation of a $43,000 soundproof phone booth in his office, which a federal investigation has already deemed a violation of the law. The EPA head overhauled the agency’s advisory boards last fall, sparking legal action from environmental advocates. Pruitt has moreover relied on industry connections and lobbyists to help arrange expensive travel to destinations both domestic and international.
At least 170 lawmakers have called for Pruitt’s resignation, all of whom are Democrats. But Republican lawmakers have also expressed displeasure with the official. During an appearance by Pruitt before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in May, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) emphasized that Pruitt’s scandals were becoming tiresome even for politicians more in line with the Trump administration’s political agenda.
That sentiment doesn’t appear to be shared by Trump, who reiterated his support for Pruitt on Wednesday. At the same time, House Republicans blocked a Democratic effort on Wednesday to increase funding for EPA’s Office of Inspector General. The watchdog is charged with overseeing Pruitt’s ethics scandals and investigations.
Two top EPA staffers also announced on Wednesday that they have left the agency in the midst of the latest controversies. Sarah Greenwalt, senior counsel to Pruitt, reportedly resigned Wednesday afternoon, according to a senior EPA staffer.
Millan Hupp, a top Pruitt aide also resigned on Wednesday. Hupp is one of two aides to have received a substantial salary increase in March. She recently testified before the House Oversight Committee that her daily tasks for Pruitt included a number of personal tasks for the administrator, including attempting to purchase a used Trump hotel mattress for him.
When asked to comment about Hupp’s departure, EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox instead told The Atlantic’s Elaina Plott, “You have a great day, you’re a piece of trash.”