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Trump and Kelly phone Pruitt as damaging reports pile up

A White House official said Tuesday that EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s future in the administration was uncertain. | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

A White House official separately told POLITICO on Tuesday that Pruitt’s future in the administration was uncertain.

Updated

President Donald Trump and White House chief of staff John Kelly each phoned Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt over the last 24 hours amid a series of damaging reports that have raised the possibility that Pruitt could be fired.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirmed that Trump spoke with Pruitt Monday night and Kelly talked to him Tuesday morning. She declined to get into the substance of their conversations, but other reports said the message to Pruitt was that “we’ve got your back.”

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The president also expressed muted support for the embattled agency chief during a meeting with foreign leaders on Tuesday. “I hope he’s going to be great,” Trump said of Pruitt, according to a press pool report.

In Trump’s White House, however, messages of support do not always carry much weight and can quickly be followed by an ouster, as was the case with former national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

A White House official told POLITICO on Tuesday that Pruitt’s future in the administration was uncertain, with the EPA chief facing mounting questions about his travel expenses, high security costs and the $ 50-a-night lodging he secured for several months last year in a lobbyist’s Capitol Hill condo. On Tuesday, the Atlantic reported that Pruitt went around the White House to secure raises for two of his staffers.

POLITICO reported Monday that Kelly has discussed the possibility of recommending that Trump fire Pruitt. But other White House officials cautioned that no decisions had been made.

Some in the White House still believe Pruitt, despite the spate of bad press, is one of the most effective members of Trump’s Cabinet in terms of policy. Pruitt announced on Tuesday plans to explore ways to relax vehicle emissions rules for model years 2022-2025.

And firing Pruitt could result in another messy confirmation battle for his successor. The Senate is already grappling with approving Trump’s nominees for secretary of state, the CIA and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But other White House officials have been annoyed by Pruitt’s alleged big ambitions, including reports that he is interested in replacing Jeff Sessions as attorney general and even in becoming president.

Although Pruitt still enjoys the support of the president and Kelly, his support among the White House staff is waning, according to two Republicans close to the White House.

Pruitt is perceived as “high maintenance” by staffers throughout the National Economic Council, communications shop, and Cabinet Affairs, said one of the Republicans — someone who has butted heads, annoyed, and exasperated people on several occasions.

NEC officials were irked by the large role Pruitt played in deciding the fate of the Paris climate change agreement — a fight he won by encouraging Trump to remain in the pact. Pruitt has also been eager to make huge announcements and publicize even minor moves out of the EPA — even if doing so at such an early stage could hurt the administration’s position if and when the issue gets challenged in court.

Several White House staffers have also been exasperated lately by having to read so many negative headlines about Pruitt — saying that air travel bills and the condo stories show a lack of common sense on his part, according to one former White House official.

Scott Pruitt is pictured. | Getty Images

“Were he not one of the president’s favorite Cabinet members and viewed as loyal and effective, he would be gone already,” the Republican added. “If the president starts to get shaky on him, things could move fast.”

Questions about Pruitt’s status in the administration come amid a fresh round of negative headlines that threaten to deepen the ethics scandals around him.

According to a report published Tuesday by The Atlantic, Pruitt moved forward with substantial salary increases for two of his top aides despite the White House dismissing a request for the raises. Sarah Greenwalt and Millan Hupp, two of Pruitt’s closest associates who migrated with him from Oklahoma to Washington, saw their salaries tick up from $ 107,435 to $ 164,200 and $ 86,460 to $ 114,590, respectively, after Pruitt used an agency loophole to raise their pay — after the White House denied the request.

Aides to the EPA administrator, whose costly travel habits have surfaced in a series of damaging reports, considered leasing a private jet on a month-to-month basis, according to a Washington Post report out Tuesday. The agency ultimately opted against the move, which officials estimated would have cost the agency roughly $ 100,000 a month.

According to records provided to the House Oversight Committee and obtained by POLITICO last month, Pruitt’s propensity for expensive travel resulted in a bill of over $ 105,000 spent on first-class flights in his first year on the job. An additional $ 58,000, not accounted for in the reported $ 105,000 figure, was spent on charter flights and a military jet used to transport him from an event with Trump to catch a connecting light in New York.

Pruitt’s proximity to lobbyists has also drawn negative attention. The EPA chief, according to a New York Times report, rented out a condominium at sub-market rates to a powerful lobbyist with ties to a Canadian energy company that at the same time received approval from Pruitt’s agency for a pipeline-expansion plan. Pruitt and the lobbying firm, Williams & Jensen, have denied any connection between the EPA’s decision and the condo rental, but the move has nonetheless drawn scrutiny from ethics experts. The town home was reportedly also used by at least three Republican lawmakers for fundraisers, the Daily Beast reported Tuesday.

Jeff Sessions if pictured. | Getty Images

Despite the reports of lavish spending and questionable decision making, Pruitt has continued to hang on, with sources close to the president pointing to his effectiveness in carrying out Trump’s agenda on energy policy.

The EPA chief is the latest Trump administration official to become the subject of speculation about a potential departure amid a recent string of high-profile exits by senior White House officials.

After months of speculation, Trump announced on Twitter last week he would replace David Shulkin as secretary of Veterans Affairs, a move that came amid intensifying reports the president would shelve the agency chief. McMaster, Trump’s former national security adviser, was also dismissed last month following reports he clashed with the president on foreign policy matters.

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