Growing Crisis Threatens Scott Pruitt, E.P.A. Chief, as Top Aides Eye the Exits

Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, with his top policy adviser, Samantha Dravis, at Trump Tower in 2016. Ms. Dravis has resigned.

WASHINGTON — A spreading crisis has threatened to engulf Scott Pruitt, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, who until recently ranked among the stars of the Trump administration.

Now, he is mired in a series of ethical questions about his housing arrangements, staffing decisions and costly travel at taxpayer expense. Senior White House officials say that Mr. Pruitt’s fate has become uncertain.

On Thursday, one of the central questions facing the E.P.A. chief — his decision in 2017 to rent a room in Washington from the wife of a top energy lobbyist — was exacerbated when an E.P.A. ethics official walked back his earlier assessment that Mr. Pruitt had done nothing wrong. In a new memo made public Thursday, the official said that he did not have all the facts when he made his initial finding.

On Wednesday one of Mr. Pruitt’s top advisers, Samantha Dravis, resigned and Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, has grown frustrated enough that he has also considered resigning, according to three people in whom Mr. Jackson has confided.

Most ominously for Mr. Pruitt, however, senior White House officials signaled Thursday that the E.P.A. chief’s standing was shaky. “I can’t speak to the future of Scott Pruitt,” said Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, on Fox News on Thursday morning.

It added up to a major crisis for a cabinet member who, despite months of criticism over costly first-class travel and other practices, had aggressively helped the otherwise tumultuous Trump administration achieve one of its central goals — the rapid rollback of regulations covering climate change, clean water and the use of chemical pesticides. In recent days, even as controversy swirled, Mr. Pruitt launched a rollback of the Obama administration’s stringent regulations on planet-warming vehicle tailpipe pollution.

In a powerful signal of the depth of concern among conservatives that they may be losing one of their standard-bearers, allies of Mr. Pruitt including the Heritage Foundation, Tea Party Patriots, and Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group funded by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, launched a coordinated social media campaign to save his job.

“As head of the @EPA, @EPAScottPruitt has been a leader in rolling back former President Obama’s job killing regulations,” the Tea Party Patriots wrote on Twitter, urging the group’s 190,000 followers to retweet the message “If you support Scott Pruitt’s conservative leadership at E.P.A.!”

Ultimately, of course, Mr. Pruitt’s fate will rest in the hands of Mr. Trump. Asked on Thursday by reporters aboard Air Force One if he was bothered by the latest reports on Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Trump replied, “I have to look at them,” and added, “But he’s a good man, he’s done a terrific job.”

Last week Senator Thomas Carper, a Democrat from Delaware, wrote a letter to the E.P.A. inspector general requesting an investigation into allegations that Ms. Dravis did not attend work or perform her duties for most of November, December and January while continuing to draw a salary. The March 28 letter, obtained by The New York Times, said the information “raises questions” about whether the agency is adhering to internal rules regarding employee time and attendance.

A spokesman for the E.P.A. inspector general, Jeffrey Lagda, confirmed that his office has received the request and said he could not comment on whether the agency has taken up the investigation.

Jahan Wilcox, a spokesman for the E.P.A., disputed the allegation. “It is completely baseless and absurd to assert that someone with her responsibilities and office would have been away from her duties and responsibilities for months at a time as alleged,” Mr. Wilcox said in a statement.

Last week, when questions arose about Mr. Pruitt’s 2017 lease — in which he rented a room for $50 a night from the wife of J. Steven Hart, an energy industry lobbyist — the E.P.A. made public a finding by the agency’s ethics counsel stating that the price Mr. Pruitt paid for the use of the apartment was reasonable market value.

However, in the follow-up memo, obtained Thursday by the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group, the same in-house lawyer said he did not have all the facts when making his initial assessment of the lease. In a second memo he also released a copy of the lease, which shows Mr. Hart’s name crossed out and the name of his wife, Vicki, inserted.

Walter J. Shaub, a senior ethics official under President Barack Obama, said the original ethics opinion had been predicated on the understanding that Mr. Pruitt was leasing only one room in the apartment. But since then, there have been reports that Mr. Pruitt’s daughter stayed there while she was a White House intern.

“If it turns out Pruitt’s daughter was allowed to stay in the other room, he had both rooms in the residence. There’s a big difference in what you’d pay to stay in a flop house with strangers and what you’d pay to have a place to yourself,” Mr. Shaub said.

At the White House on Thursday, officials said they had deep concerns about Mr. Pruitt’s conduct and worried that more allegations of misconduct could surface, further angering Mr. Trump, who has been displeased with the torrent of negative headlines about this E.P.A. chief. The president was particularly put off by Mr. Pruitt’s performance in an interview on Fox News, aides said. Asked about it on Air Force One on Thursday, Mr. Trump would only say: “It’s an interesting interview.”

But officials also noted that Mr. Pruitt was among the president’s favorites and a darling of his conservative base, making it possible for him to survive.

In the interview Wednesday with Fox News, Mr. Pruitt pushed back on suggestions he had committed an ethical violation by renting the apartment. Asked if renting from the wife of a Washington lobbyist violated Mr. Trump’s mantra of “draining the swamp,” Mr. Pruitt responded, “I don’t think that’s even remotely fair to ask that question.”

In the same interview, he also denied responsibility for giving generous pay raises to two of his staff members that have also come under fire. The two aides, Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, had both worked for Mr. Pruitt in Oklahoma, where he served as attorney general before coming to the E.P.A. Ms. Greenwalt’s salary was raised to $164,200 from $107,435, while Ms. Hupp’s was raised to $114,590 from $86,460.

“My staff did and I found out about that yesterday, and I changed it,” Mr. Pruitt said. “The officials that were involved in that process should not have done what they did.”

At the E.P.A. headquarters in the William Jefferson Clinton building a few blocks from the White House, several senior staffers separately used the word “toxic” to describe the atmosphere at the agency, with its political appointees adopting a bunker mentality amid the questions about Mr. Pruitt’s behavior.

Some career civil servants at the agency, many of whom have worked there through several presidential administrations and are dismayed over Mr. Pruitt’s policies, appeared hopeful at the prospect of the administrator’s downfall.One longtime agency official said some employees are now openly taking bets on how long the administrator will hold on to his job.

The allegations of ethical missteps by Mr. Pruitt are now causing dismay among some of the Republicans he brought into the agency as well. One of those is Mr. Jackson, Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff, a seasoned Washington insider who previously worked for years for Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is known as Congress’ most vocal denier of the established science of human-caused climate change.

Mr. Jackson’s frustration with his boss underscores how even the anti-regulation conservatives who once hailed the arrival of Mr. Pruitt have become disillusioned.

Last year, Mr. Pruitt gained attention after requesting special privileges and protections including a full-time security detail and the installation of a $25,000 secure telephone booth in his office. At least five agency officials were demoted, reassigned or requested new assignments after raising objections to Mr. Pruitt’s spending and security decisions, The New York Times reported on Thursday.

Mr. Pruitt’s friends say they believe the ethics questions are the result of a campaign by environmentalists. Robert E. Murray, the chief executive of Murray Energy and a major supporter of Mr. Pruitt’s, called him “the star” of the Trump administration.

“Things are coming in such a wave, it’s obvious that it’s a coordinated campaign,” said David Rivkin, an attorney who represents industry opponents of E.P.A. rules and who has worked closely with Mr. Pruitt for years.

Mr. Rivkin said that he expected Mr. Pruitt to survive the storm. “It’s happening because he’s the most effective cabinet member,” he said.

Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed reporting.

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