WASHINGTON — An EPA lawyer says he wasn't given all the facts when he ruled that there was no ethics violation in Administrator Scott Pruitt's lease of a bargain-priced condo while new reports surfaced Thursday of questionable conduct — the latest in a string of snowballing troubles dogging the agency head.
EPA ethics lawyer Kevin Minoli issued an opinion last week saying Pruitt was paying fair-market value. But in a letter dated Wednesday, Minoli said that was based on the assumption that Pruitt occupied only one bedroom for $50 a night, as outlined in the lease.
Media reports later disclosed that Pruitt's college-aged daughter occupied a second bedroom while she interned at the White House last summer. Minoli said he did not consider the value of a second room in his analysis. Pruitt paid about $1,000 a month, less than a third of what other nearby two-bedroom homes list for.
Trump says 'I do' when asked about confidence in PruittApril 5, 201805:12
Pointing to those allegations, a growing number of House Republicans are calling on Pruitt to step down. At least three — Elise Stefanik, of New York, and Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both of Florida — have said Pruitt should resign.
President Donald Trump, however, said Thursday he still supported Pruitt.
When asked by a reporter whether he had confidence in his embattled EPA chief, Trump, en route to an event in West Virginia, responded, "I do."
Multiple administration officials familiar with the president's thinking told NBC News on Thursday that the president had been considering, as recently as last week, replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions with Pruitt, who previously served as the attorney general of Oklahoma. The news was first reported by CNN.
The officials added that Trump likes Pruitt personally and he has been seen as effectively executing on the president's agenda. But one person familiar with the discussions stressed that Trump "muses about a lot of things," and said the possibility of such a move is not likely now in light of the ethical concerns surrounding Pruitt.
EPA head Scott Pruitt faces growing ethics controversyApril 5, 201801:17
White House spokespeople have declined to offer full support for Pruitt in recent days, and Deputy White House Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said earlier Thursday that Pruitt's conduct was under review.
"There is a process in place to review some of these actions," Gidley told Fox News, adding that he "can't speak to the future of Scott Pruitt."
A day earlier, White House Press SecretarySarah Huckabee Sanders, when asked if the president was OK with Pruitt's actions, replied: "The president's not."
Meanwhile, a new alleged scandal involving Pruitt emerged Thursday afternoon, when CBS News reported that the EPA chief, just weeks after he was confirmed to the post, wanted to use his vehicle's sirens and lights to get through Washington, D.C., traffic.
When his lead security agent refused the request, explaining that he couldn't use them unless there was an emergency, the EPA reassigned him, CBS reported.
The New York Times also reported Thursday that several EPA officials, some of them senior, had been sidelined after questioning Pruitt.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said of the report: "This is a group of disgruntled employees who have either been dismissed or reassigned."
For his part, Pruitt also is denying he knew about big raises given to two of his closest aides and insisting he did nothing wrong in renting the low-priced condo tied to an energy lobbyist.
Pruitt spoke this week in a series of interviews with Fox News and other conservative media outlets in an attempt to shore up his eroding position in an administration that has seen other top officials depart after ethical missteps.
Also, EPA senior counsel and associate administrator Samantha Dravis has resigned, it was reported by the Washington Post on Thursday and confirmed by NBC News.
As the head of the EPA, Pruitt has been Trump's point man for the administration's push to make the agency more industry-friendly and roll back environmental regulations seen by the White House as overreaching, many of which were put in place by the Obama administration.
In Washington, Pruitt has moved to scrap, gut or replace numerous environmental regulations opposed by industry while boosting the continued burning of fossil fuels, which scientists have concluded is the primary cause of climate change.
He has come under fire for his use of taxpayer-funded travel, mostly in first-class, despite federal regulations requiring federal officials to fly in coach. Pruitt has defended his travel arrangements, saying he needed to sit in first-class seats due to security concerns.
In one instance last year, Pruitt and members of his staff spent roughly $40,000 in taxpayer funds to fly to Morocco to help encourage the country import liquefied natural gas from the United States.
In the Fox interview, Pruitt claimed the travel controversy is a conspiracy manufactured by his critics on the left, and he also defended himself over the raises to his two close aides, saying the pay hikes were approved by staff, he was unaware of the decision and planned to review it.