The swamp that Donald Trump vowed to drain is deeper than ever, teeming with stealthy critters.
Of the president’s high-level appointments, none submerged more comfortably into the ooze than Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Pruitt is from Oklahoma, but he’s been navigating the Washington mire with web-footed confidence — until now. Trump isn’t happy with some of the waves Pruitt has been making.
The EPA chief’s addiction to first-class travel has drawn fire, as has his assembling a personal security team larger than Justin Bieber’s.
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Most recently, it was revealed that Pruitt leased a bedroom in a Capital Hill condo for $50 a night, a really sweet deal. The condo is co-owned by a healthcare lobbyist who happens to be married to a friend of Pruitt.
That friend is J. Steven Hart, the chairman of another lobby firm that counts energy companies among its top clients. Pruitt is a proud and pro-active tool of the gas, oil and coal industries.
Hart said he hasn’t lobbied the EPA for anything lately, and Pruitt said the agency’s ethics officials had signed off on the condo lease. Then it came out that Pruitt’s daughter had stayed in a second bedroom, which made folks start to wonder if the one-bedroom contract was just a charade.
So that’s one boggy patch of trouble.
Another involves uncommonly large raises that were given to two of Pruitt’s top aides, against the wishes of the White House. Both aides had worked for Pruitt while he was Oklahoma’s attorney general and come with him to Washington.
One, Sarah Greenwalt, was appointed senior counsel at the EPA. According to The Atlantic magazine, Pruitt wanted the salary for that position increased from $107,435 to $164,200 – a bump of almost 53 percent.
The same story said that Pruitt also requested a fat raise for Millan Hupp, 26, whom he’d hired as the agency’s scheduling director. Her pay would jump from $86,460 to $114,590 — not bad for somebody who, only three years ago, was working at the airport Embassy Suites in Nashville.
Pruitt had to ask the White House to approve the pay hikes because both women were political appointees. The staff of the Presidential Personnel Office said No.
What happened next is the move of a canny swamp slitherer. Using part of an EPA law that allows him to hire up to 30 people with no input from Congress or the White House, Pruitt reappointed Hupp and Greenwalt — and promptly gave them their hefty raises.
(Ironically, the hiring provision upon which Pruitt relied is found in the Safe Drinking Water Act. The man has spent every waking moment at the EPA killing regulations designed to reduce industrial pollution of water and air.)
The uproar over the pay increases for Hupp and Greenwalt forced Pruitt to go on Fox News to defend himself, although the interview didn’t go well. He was basically kneecapped by reporter Ed Henry, for good reason.
Pruitt sat in front of the TV cameras and insisted with a straight face that he knew nothing about the salary hikes, stating they were now rescinded and should never have been put into effect. He blamed unnamed staff members for the screw-up.
In other words, we’re all expected to believe that two of the EPA administrator’s closest aides simultaneously began receiving the biggest paychecks of their lives, and that their boss had no clue about how that happened.
Trump stays glued to Fox News, and he hates it when Cabinet members make his administration look bad. He phoned Pruitt to voice his continued support, but numerous news outlets report that the president is very displeased.
Pruitt has publicly attained “embattled” status. In fact, if you Googled the phrase “embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt” last week, you could view more than 1 million entries.
That’s not good. He could easily be fired by the time this column appears.
It doesn’t matter that Pruitt is the most competent of all Trump’s lame Cabinet choices, past and present. His disemboweling of the EPA has been coldly efficient, but it won’t save him if the Big Orange Trumpster wakes up extra-grumpy one morning.
That sucking sound you hear is Pruitt frantically trying to pull his swampy self out of the muck.