EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies on Capitol Hill Thursday.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt testifies on Capitol Hill Thursday. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

EPA’s Pruitt on Defensive to Congress, Deflecting Blame While Also Promising Changes

Lawmakers voice concerns about fallout from EPA chief's ethical issues on workforce.

The embattled head of the Environmental Protection Agency was defensive and at times defiant during two hearings on Capitol Hill on Thursday, his first appearances before Congress since the administrator has faced a barrage of allegations of questionable ethical behavior.

The accusations amounted to “half truths” and “lies,” Scott Pruitt said in his testimony, blaming his opponents both inside the agency and in the media for advancing a narrative aimed at preventing him from enforcing his agenda at EPA. Pruitt acknowledged some of his activities led to potentially bad optics and promised to make changes if proper processes were not followed. In some cases, he said, he has already instituted changes, such as not flying first class. In other cases, he pointed the blame at EPA staff for approving practices without his knowledge or demurred by saying potentially problematic decisions were under review.

“I have nothing to hide,” Pruitt said before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Facts are facts and fiction is fiction, and a lie does not become true just because it appears on the front page of the newspaper.”

He added that those raising allegations against him “are doing so because they want to derail the president’s agenda. I’m not going to let that happen.”

The administrator conceded that he gave the “green light” for raises to his top aides, though he maintained that he had no knowledge of the amount or the arcane process through which they were awarded to circumvent White House concerns. That prompted Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., to criticize Pruitt for not having “any idea what is going on in your name” at the agency. Pruitt defended the security protocols instituted for his protection, saying the inspector general confirmed he was facing an unprecedented level of threats.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Wash., said she spoke to the IG on Thursday and he disputed those claims. Pruitt provided the House appropriations panel with oversight of the EPA with a copy of an IG threat assessment citing threats he received on social media, though McCollum still doubted the administrator was honest in who issued the assessment and in qualifying the severity of the threats.

“We all receive death threats on our Facebook page,” said McCollum, the top Democrat on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. She later added: “This is not a satisfactory answer to me.”

Pruitt faced blistering attacks from Democrats throughout the day.

“You are unfit to hold public office and undeserving of the public trust,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee. “Every indication we have is you should really resign.”

McCollum said Pruitt’s controversies were dragging down EPA’s operations and, like many of her colleagues, criticized the administrator for displaying a “disregard for the ethical standards to which all public officials should adhere.”  

“You are letting the American people down,” McCollum said. “Your actions are distracting the EPA from its core mission and have created a toxic work environment that has demoralized your staff.”

She also criticized Pruitt for removing employees or pressuring them to resign for speaking out against his spending habits or on environmental issues that the Trump administration does not prioritize, saying he was hurting morale and forcing employees to fear retaliation. The administrator denied the allegations.

“I’m not aware of any instance that any action has been taken for employment status with regard to those issues,” Pruitt said. McCollum responded by calling on Pruitt to resign.

Republican criticism was significantly more tempered, with the most pointed comments amounting to statements that they could not defend his actions or that he would have to be held accountable for whatever results stem from the multitude of outstanding investigations into his behavior. Many Republican lawmakers actively defended Pruitt and blamed Democrats for engaging in a politically motivated witch hunt.  

“This has been a classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism,” said Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.

“It is shameful today this has turned into turned into a personal attack hearing,” said Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio.

“If you can’t debate policy in Washington,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, “you attack the person.”

After the appropriations hearing, Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., who chairs the subcommittee, said he does not think Pruitt should resign but wanted to let the investigations unfold.

“The committee is looking into these charges and we’ll have a resolution to it,” Calvert said.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., praised his colleagues for “posing tough questions,” but noted the committee still is looking for answers on some issues.

“My view on these things is the truth always comes out so if something wrong was done, I think we’re going to know about it,” Cole said. “I think what we got was a commitment that ‘some of these things have been reviewed, we’ll change some things, we made some mistakes and we’re working on them,’ and that to me is the right approach that you ought to take.”