Alex Brandon/AP

A Pruitt Aide's Attack on Zinke Angers the White House

A press staffer at the Environmental Protection Agency attempted to distract from his boss’s troubles by planting stories that would reflect poorly on the secretary of the interior.

As Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt faces a seemingly endless stream of scandal, his team is scrambling to divert the spotlight to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. And the White House isn’t happy about it.

In the last week, a member of Pruitt’s press team, Michael Abboud, has been shopping negative stories about Zinke to multiple outlets, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the efforts, as well as correspondence reviewed by The Atlantic.

“This did not happen, and it’s categorically false,” said EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox.

The stories were shopped with the intention of “taking the heat off of Pruitt,” the sources said, in the aftermath of the EPA chief’s punishing congressional hearing last week. They both added, however, that most reporters felt the story was not solid enough to run. On Thursday, Patrick Howley of Big League Politics published a piece on the allegations; he did not respond to request for comment as to his sources.

Abboud alleged to reporters that an Interior staffer conspired with former EPA deputy chief of staff Kevin Chmielewski to leak damaging information about the EPA, as part of a rivalry between Zinke and Pruitt. The collaboration, Abboud claimed, allowed the Interior staffer to prop up Zinke at the expense of Pruitt, and Chmielewski to “get back” at his former boss.

Abboud offered to connect reporters with Healy Baumgardner as a second source, according to a person with direct knowledge. Baumgardner, a former Trump campaign official, is a global energy lobbyist for the U.S.-China Exchange. She’s close to some EPA officials, the source, as well as an EPA official, confirmed. Baumgardner did not immediately return a request for comment.

According to the two sources, Interior staffers who fielded the reporters’ calls were able to ascertain that Abboud, who is a former Trump campaign official, was behind the stories. The Interior Department’s White House liaison then called the White House Presidential Personnel Office to complain about his conduct.

On Wednesday, a PPO official called top aides at the EPA, “enraged” about Abboud’s efforts, according to a senior EPA official. The PPO official inquired whether Abboud was a “Schedule C” appointee, which would place him within PPO’s jurisdiction and thus give it the ability to fire him. But the official was informed that Abboud is an “administratively determined” hire, which means that only Pruitt himself has the ability to fire him. It is unclear the extent to which Pruitt was aware of these events.

Even so, the message from PPO, according to the senior official, was: “Basically, y’all are in trouble.” A White House official with knowledge of the events added: “Absolutely nothing Scott Pruitt did would surprise me.”

Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for Interior, and Raj Shah, a spokesman for the White House, both declined to comment.