The Energy 202: Why the torrent of Scott Pruitt news shows no sign of stopping

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THE LIGHTBULB

If it felt like you were up to your eyeballs in Scott Pruitt stories last week, get used to it. There's no sign the deluge is stopping.

On Monday, The Post reported that the Environmental Protection Agency chief enlisted one of his aides to try to buy him a used mattress from President Trump's hotel in Washington. On Tuesday, we learned Pruitt asked another aide to help his wife secure a franchise with chicken-sandwich joint Chick-fil-A. And then on Thursday came lotion-gate: Pruitt had tasked members of his 24/7 security detail to run him around to purchase a particular moisturizer available at Ritz-Carlton hotels.

The series of seemingly endless Scott Pruitt stories, in just one single week, brings up the question: When will the news about Pruitt's spending and personnel decisions at the EPA stop?

The answer: Not likely anytime soon.

News outlets, including The Post, have pumped resources into reporting on his management of the EPA since the start of the Trump administration. Even if Pruitt changed how he spends money and manages aides from the moment the stories of potential ethics violations started accelerating in February, when The Post started reporting on Pruitt's first-class flights, we're likely to keep finding out more. 

Why? Because many of the Pruitt-related controversies dominating headlines today actually happened months ago.

Consider, if you can for a moment, the used hotel mattress. Pruitt's director of scheduling and advance at the time, Millan Hupp, contacted the Trump International Hotel about getting a discount “Trump Home Luxury Plush Euro Pillow Top” mattress back in September. The EPA's purchase for Pruitt of a dozen customized fountain pens from a Washington jewelry store for $1,560 — another controversial spending decision revealed just this month — happened even earlier, in August 2017.

And the request to Chick-fil-A? That happened just three months after Pruitt was sworn in as EPA administrator.

Why are these and other stories coming to light just now? In part, for two reasons. First, the EPA is finally filling, often only after being sued, the Freedom of Information Act requests of environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council and news outlets such as The Post and the New York Times for the relevant emails, calendars and other documents of Pruitt and other agency employees from last year. Second, the House Oversight Committee continues to interview those EPA employees, such as Hupp, for yet more details about their boss's past behavior.

So even though Pruitt, under pressure from lawmakers, has said he would make some changes — including a promise to begin traveling coach at least part of the time — there are still months of potentially newsworthy activity that could be unveiled as the EPA's FOIA office completes more requests and as the Oversight Committee conducts more interviews.

Most importantly, the ultimate arbiter of Pruitt's fate at the agency, Trump, has decided not to oust the EPA administrator. Trump told reporters Friday, after that week of stories, that “Scott Pruitt is doing a great job within the walls of the EPA.”

“I mean, we're setting records,” Trump added. “Outside, he's being attacked very viciously by the press. I'm not saying that he's blameless, but we'll see what happens.”

Indeed, a New York Times story from over the weekend said that Pruitt has become one of the president's "confidants." The Times reports the "two speak frequently, and the president enjoys discussing his negative view of Jeff Sessions," the attorney general who Trump wishes had not recused himself from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

Every day Pruitt remains in office, any of his past activity is still newsworthy. 

POWER PLAYS

— Trump's G-7 summit split: Trump skipped out early on the weekend’s Group of 7 summit in Canada, missing sessions on climate change and the environment and sending an adviser in his place.

CNN reports Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “had arranged for the climate section to be a chief accomplishment of this year's G7.” The president initially refused to join the summit’s communique, rejecting common statements by the six other involved nations on their commitment to the Paris climate accord, Inside Climate News reports, before he rejected the communique entirely in a series of tweets on Saturday: 

"Trump’s actions deepened the divide between the United States and its allies, and European leaders Sunday expressed shock and resignation at this latest sign that the president is eager to defy diplomatic norms and blow up trade relationships that have been strong for decades," The Post's Damian Paletta and Joel Achenbach report. "The leaders of the seven industrial powers had managed by Saturday to overcome their differences and cobble together a joint communique expressing common principles and economic aspirations. Trudeau announced the agreement at a news conference, and then, taking questions from reporters, reiterated his objections to Trump’s imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum from Canada, Mexico and the European Union. Trump took umbrage at those comments. Traveling on Air Force One to Singapore for the historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump charged Trudeau with 'false statements; and accused him of being 'dishonest' and 'weak.'"

Meanwhile: As Trump heads into the meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to discuss denuclearization, he does so without an adviser in the White House trained in the area. There is no top scientist at the State Department, nor is there one at the Agriculture Department, the New York Times reports. “Mr. Trump is the first president since 1941 not to name a science adviser, a position created during World War II to guide the Oval Office on technical matters ranging from nuclear warfare to global pandemics,” the Times reports. “As a businessman and president, Mr. Trump has proudly been guided by his instincts. Nevertheless, people who have participated in past nuclear negotiations say the absence of such high-level expertise could put him at a tactical disadvantage in one of the weightiest diplomatic matters of his presidency.”

— Pruitt watch. Here is the latest on the EPA chief:

  • House Democrats are asking for a criminal investigation into Pruitt’s use of his office to try to secure a job for his wife. Six lawmakers wrote to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and acting assistant attorney general John Cronan calling for a probe into whether Pruitt used his position for “personal gain of himself and his family, in violation of federal law,” per The Post’s Josh Dawsey. The Chick-fil-A request "is the latest in a string of unethical spending and management decisions that gave given rise to twelve federal investigations,” Reps. Donald S. Beyer (Va.), Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), Jamie Raskin (Md.), Ruben Gallego (Ariz.), Pramila Jayapal (Wash.) and Ted E. Lieu (Calif.) wrote.
     
  • Dallas businessman Doug Deason, a prominent GOP donor and Trump supporter, helped Pruitt pick the head of the agency’s science advisory board. Deason handed Pruitt a list of candidates for the scientific body that had been supplied by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, Politico reports, for which Deason serves on the board. Deason's full list was drafted by Kathleen Hartnett White, Trump's failed pick to run the Council on Environmental Quality. Politico reported that Deason acknowledged in an email that he made the recommendations.
     
  • A Toyota executive offered Pruitt a private test drive in one of Lexus’s latest models last year, according to the cache of emails obtained by the Sierra Club. An email between former top aide Millan Hupp and a Toyota representative suggested Pruitt had an interest in test driving a Lexus LC500 after visiting the carmaker’s headquarters in Plano, Tex., the news site ThinkProgress reported. But ABC News adds the drive never took place. “Something has just come up that needs the Administrator’s immediate attention. Unfortunately, he doesn’t feel that he can leave the office right now. I sincerely apologize for the short notice, but can we postpone to a later date?” Hupp said in an email to the company representative. “You have been so gracious and we hope to do this very soon.”

Meanwhile, Pruitt touted the agency’s accomplishments during speech last week: “This is a transformational time," Pruitt said at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual Road To Majority conference, the Hill reports. "There are certain times in history that when you’re living in them you recognize that what’s happening is going to impact generations into the future."

— Public lands, unfunded: Two months into the third quarter of the fiscal year, the Bureau of Land Management has not awarded any grant funding to nonprofit groups across Nevada and the Western United States that do some of the preservation work at Gold Butte National Monument. “Budget fights in Washington, D.C. and an administrative review launched by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have stalled the usual grant dollars, creating uncertainty about funding and delaying fieldwork in Nevada’s more than 48 million acres of parks and wilderness,” the Nevada Independent reports. “The groups collect wildlife data, host educational events, inventory roads and re-seed large parcels of land charred by wildfire. Without these funds, the groups are forced to pull back, resulting in fewer managers maintaining recreation areas and wilderness, which places a greater burden on the BLM, an agency that’s already stretched thin.”

— A "close friend:" The top Republican Party boss in the U.S. Virgin Islands suggested his fundraising group's ties to Zinke helped to push the department’s response to the hurricanes in the U.S. territory last year. John Canegata said he had “direct access to Interior officials after the storm thanks to money his group raised for Zinke, whom he described as a ‘close friend,’ ” Politico reports. “Interior officials acknowledged reaching out to Canegata, who also works for a major rum distiller in the territory, although they said it was part of a wider effort to contact business leaders based in the territory and Zinke did not call him personally. However, a representative of the distiller said Canegata was not involved in their relief efforts, and a spokesman for the Virgin Islands' House delegate disputed Canegata's involvement in the hurricane response.”

— Greens seeing red after Yellowstone ouster: Environmentalists have criticized Zinke over the ousting of Yellowstone National Park’s chief Dan Wenk, who last week described the move as “punitive.” “His decision to force out the superintendent of the world’s first national park should be seen for what it is: political interference and retaliation for a Park Service leader standing up for parks and wildlife rather than special interests,” the Sierra Club’s Bonnie Rice said in a Friday statement, according to Reuters. National Parks Conservation Association regional director Bart Melton said Wenk “stood up for wildlife and united voices around solutions and we need to ensure that same approach will continue.”

— “There’s no time to lose”: Pope Francis over the weekend gathered oil executives for a closed-door conference at the Vatican to discuss the global crisis posed by climate change. “The pope said oil and gas companies had made commendable progress and were ‘developing more careful approaches to the assessment of climate risk and adjusting their business practices accordingly.’ But those actions were not enough,” the New York Times reports. “Will we turn the corner in time? No one can answer that with certainty,” the pope said. “But with each month that passes, the challenge of energy transition becomes more pressing.”

— Lobbying Trump with postcards: As U.S. companies await the Trump administration’s decision on temporary exemptions for proposed tariffs, some are relying on creative attempts to get Trump’s attention. One steel pipe company has vowed to invest millions and hire new workers if it receives the temporary exclusion, and has offered employees cash rewards for writing postcards to Trump pitching their case, Bloomberg News reports. Other companies are also working on letter-writing campaigns along with lawmakers who are lobbying on their behalf. “The Commerce Department has been flooded with almost 19,000 requests so far to have products excluded from Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs,” per the report.

THERMOMETER

— Power lines at fault for massive wildfire: Downed power lines owned by Pacific Gas & Electric in California were to blame for a dozen of the more than 170 wildfires that ravaged the Northern California region last year, BuzzFeed News reports. California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection shared the determination in a report, which included analysis of fires in Mendocino, Lake, Butte, Sonoma, Napa, and Humboldt counties and “found that in many cases the fires started after trees or branches fell onto PG&E power lines,” per the report. “The findings could be especially devastating for PG&E, which has a history of being found responsible for major wildfires because of inadequate maintenance of its equipment.” In a statement, PG&E said it believes its “overall programs met our state’s high standards."

— It begins: Aletta, the first storm of the 2018 Eastern Pacific hurricane season, developed into a Category 4 hurricane on Friday morning. It was not a threat to any land area, The Post’s Jason Samenow reports, and was expected to steadily decay over the weekend. The Atlantic Ocean saw its first named storm, Alberto, in May, before the official June 1 start of hurricane season there.

— Hurricane Maria casts shadow over New York's Puerto Rican Day Parade: For some, the 61st annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade in Manhattan had a different tone this year. Along with the red, white and blue colors of the U.S. territory’s flag, there was also a black and white version, a reminder of the ongoing relief effort and destruction following Hurricane Maria. “As the parade passed Trump Tower, the president’s New York residence, many marchers extended middle fingers toward the building,” the New York Times reports. “An older blind man, escorted by other marchers, wore a sign around his neck that read, ‘We don’t need your paper towels,’ followed by an obscenity — a reference to President Trump tossing rolls of paper towels to storm victims at a relief center when he visited the island in October.”

OIL CHECK

— Iran chides Trump for calling for more oil abroad: Iran’s OPEC governor called the United States' request for Saudi Arabia to increase its oil output to make up for a drop in Iranian exports “crazy and astonishing,” Reuters reports. “It’s crazy and astonishing to see instruction coming from Washington to Saudi to act and replace a shortfall of Iran’s export due to their Illegal sanction on Iran and Venezuela,” Iran’s OPEC governor Hossein Kazempour Ardebili said, suggesting OPEC would not comply.

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds a field hearing on “Examining Effects of Mismanagement of the Cormorant in the Great Lakes Region” in Alpena, Mich.

Coming Up

  • The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies holds a markup on 2019 appropriations on Tuesday.
  • Members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission testify during an oversight hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water and Power holds a legislative hearing on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee holds a business meeting on the 2018 Farm Bill on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Waste Management and Regulatory Oversight holds a hearing on “Oversight of the Army Corps’ Regulation of Surplus Water and the Role of States’ Rights” on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Appropriations Committee holds a markup on 2019 appropriations on Thursday.
  • The Center for American Progress holds an event on “Risks Posed to Climate and Energy Data from Political Interference” on Thursday. 

EXTRA MILEAGE

From cartoonist Clay Jones: