President Donald Trump reassured embattled Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt that “we’ve got your back” amid reports that Pruitt had received a generously low rental rate on a condo linked to a powerful energy lobbyist.
In the phone call, the president encouraged Pruitt to “keep his head up” and to “keep fighting,” according to reports from multiple news outlets. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reiterated the message in a separate phone call Tuesday morning.
Pruitt’s future in the Trump administration is uncertain as the White House investigates reports that he rented a Capitol Hill condo in the first half of 2017 from the wife of an energy lobbyist at Williams & Jensen for only $50 a night. Pruitt was renting the condo at the same time the firm was lobbying for a pipeline-expansion project, which the EPA approved in March 2017. The agency insists that the lease arrangement does not amount to a special favor regarding the pipeline—although it does appear to raise a conflict of interest.
The EPA maintains that its chief received a fair rate for the rental, but the lease was unusual in that it required Pruitt to pay only for the nights he slept there. He paid $6,100 over six months for the space, according to EPA documents, while property listings show that a typical studio or one-bedroom apartment in the same area would cost around $2,000 a month. Furthermore, ABC News reported that Pruitt’s daughter McKenna, a White House intern, also lived in the condo during some of the same period, and they did not have to share the unit with anyone else.
The condo is just the latest example of the administration’s concern over Pruitt’s spending habits. He is also facing scrutiny for exorbitant taxpayer-funded travel, which is being investigated internally by the EPA and Congress. During a short span in June, Pruitt racked up $90,000 in travel expenses—likely a result of his extensive security detail and multiple first-class airline tickets, despite federal regulations that typically require officials to fly coach. It was also revealed Tuesday that Pruitt used a provision in the Safe Water Drinking Act to increase the salaries of two aides after the White House declined to give them raises.
The ethical concerns have increased the possibility that Pruitt will be fired, but the White House has, overall, been pleased with how Pruitt has pushed Trump’s deregulation agenda and pressed for the unfettered burning of fossil fuels. On Tuesday, Pruitt announced that vehicle fuel emission standards will be revised, just one day after Trump said he intends to scale back those regulations, which were enacted under the Obama administration.
Although Pruitt still has the support of the president, for now, the recent wave of ousted officials, from national security adviser H.R. McMaster to Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, should serve as a warning. The president is unpredictable, and his support is fleeting.