Trump offers support to embattled EPA head


WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is offering strong support for Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency who is at the center of swirling ethics questions, the White House said Tuesday.

The president called Pruitt on Monday and told him that “we’ve got your back” and urged him to “keep his head up” and “keep fighting,” according to two administration officials. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.

White House chief of staff John Kelly reiterated those sentiments in a call to Pruitt Tuesday morning, according to the officials.

Pruitt has come under intense scrutiny for his use of a Capitol Hill condominium linked to a prominent Washington lobbyist whose firm represents fossil fuel companies. An agency ethics official at the EPA has insisted that Pruitt’s lease didn’t violate federal ethics rules.

A memo signed by Kevin Minoli contends that Pruitt’s $50-a-night rental payments constitute a fair market rate. Pruitt’s lease, however, required him to pay just for nights he occupied in the unit. Pruitt actually paid a total of $6,100 over the six month period he leased the property, an average of about $1,000 a month.

But current rental listings for two-bedroom apartments in the neighborhood show they typically go for far more than what Pruitt paid. A two bedroom townhome on the same block as the one leased by Pruitt was advertised for rent on Monday at $3,750 a month.

Pruitt also has come under increasing scrutiny for his extensive use of bodyguards and frequent taxpayer-funded travel, which has included first-class airline tickets. Though federal regulations typically require federal officials to fly in coach, the EPA chief has said he needed to sit in premium seats due to security concerns.

A Republican who previously served as the state attorney general of Oklahoma, Pruitt has long been a champion of the oil and gas industry. In the year he has served as the Trump administration’s top environmental official, Pruitt has moved to scrap, gut or replace numerous environmental regulations opposed by the industry while boosting the continued burning of fossil fuels, which is the primary cause of climate change.

Trump is said to be fond of Pruitt and has cheered his moves to rollback regulations and do battle with environmental groups, according to a White House official.

The president’s call to Pruitt comes just days after another Cabinet official, Veterans Affairs head David Shulkin, was dismissed amid ongoing ethics concerns. An inspector general’s report concluded that Shulkin had inappropriately accepted travel and Wimbledon tickets, a charge the secretary denied.

Other Trump Cabinet members, including Secretary for Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson and Interior head Ryan Zinke have also faced questions about their expenditures.

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