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On the hot seat at the House, Scott Pruitt makes few concessions

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  • John Yang:

    Now, we turn to one of the president’s top cabinet members who’s been under fire himself, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. His appearances before two House committees today were ostensibly about budget matters. But lawmakers put him on the hot seat for all sorts of different reasons.

    In a moment, Jeffrey Brown talks with Lisa Desjardins about the politics and the policy at issue. But we begin with Lisa’s look at Pruitt’s day on Capitol Hill.

    (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Long a lightning rod on environmental policy, this was EPA Chief Scott Pruitt first chance to address a recent slew of scandals with Congress.

    He insisted they were distractions and has nothing to hide.

  • Scott Pruitt:

    I’m here and I welcome the chance to be here to set the record straight in these areas. Let’s have no illusions to what is really going on here. Those who have attacked the EPA and attacked me are doing so because they want to attack and derail the president’s agenda and undermine this administration’s priorities.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Pruitt is under at least 10 investigations, one questioning large raises for two staffers, several on spending for personal security, luxury travel and thousands on office upgrades. Another, about his $50 a night lease of a condo from the wife of an energy lobbyist. And retribution questions — some EPA employees who criticized the spending have reportedly been demoted or forced to change jobs. Republicans on the committee, like Greg Harper, largely defended Pruitt by letting him defend himself.

  • Rep. Greg Harper, R-Miss:

    Will you explain these allegations and tell us what steps EPA takes to investigate allegations brought forward by EPA employees?

  • Scott Pruitt:

    First, there’s no truth to the assertion that decisions have been made about reassignment or otherwise as far as employment status based upon the things that you reference.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    From retribution to favoritism, Democrat Paul Tonko pressed Pruitt on large raises for two longtime aides.

  • Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y.:

    This is your opportunity to set the record straight.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Pruitt denied approving the raises in a FOX News interview this month, but staffers and emails have indicated otherwise.

    Today, Pruitt implied he did know.

  • Scott Pruitt:

    I was not aware of the amount nor was I —

  • Rep. Paul Tonko D, N.Y.:

    Not the amount, were you aware of the raises?

  • Scott Pruitt:

    I was not aware of the amount.

  • Rep. Paul Tonko D, N.Y.:

    Well, then, I’m concerned that you have no idea of what is going on in your name at your agency.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Democrat Peter Welch pressed Pruitt on his $43,000 sound proof phone booth for classified calls. Pruitt said he asked for the booth but never approved that much spending.

  • Scott Pruitt:

    They’re not right close to my office

  • Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt:

    Pardon me?

  • Scott Pruitt:

    They’re not right close to my office.

  • Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt:

    Well, how often do you need to use your secret phone booth?

  • Scott Pruitt:

    It’s for confidential occasions and its rare.

  • Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt:

    OK. So, on those rare occasions, is it too much to ask you to walk whatever distance it takes for you to get to that —

  • Scott Pruitt:

    It depends on the nature of the call and how urgent the call is.

  • Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt:

    But the point is you have two locations that you can go to when you have to make those phone calls. This is taxpayer money. It’s taxpayer money.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Many Republicans thanked Pruitt for rolling back regulations they see as onerous, several criticized Democrats’ questions.

  • Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas:

    If you can’t debate the policies in Washington, you attack the personality and that’s happening to you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There were policy questions, including about a rule Pruitt proposed this week that would require scientists to turn over their raw data in pertinent studies. Democrats say much of that data is confidential medical and personal information.

    Republican Kevin Cramer defended the idea.

  • Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.:

    We’re not asking for personal data, we’re asking simply for the science to be revealed. I mean, you can protect personal data, right?

  • Scott Pruitt:

    Both the personal data, Congressman, as well as confidential business information.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    President Trump has trumpeted his support for Pruitt in the past, especially his deregulation efforts. But the White House has been more cautious lately.

    Yesterday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders indicated the administration takes the Pruitt questions seriously.

  • Sarah Huckabee Sanders:

    Again, we are evaluating these concerns and we expect the administrator to answer for them.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In today’s hearing, retiring Republican House member Ryan Costello said the answers so far are not enough.

  • Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa.:

    I’ve reviewed your answers and I find some of them lacking or insufficient and I believe you’ve demonstrated, or you’ve not demonstrated the requisite degree of good judgment required of an appointed executive branch official on some of these spending items.

  • Man:

    The subcommittee is adjourned.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Pruitt today insisted most spending decisions were made for security reasons or without his specific knowledge.

    (END VIDEOTAPE)

  • Jeffery Brown:

    During the afternoon, Scott Pruitt appeared before a second committee and once again, he made few concessions about the decisions in question. The day was seen by many as a pivotal moment for his future.

    And Lisa Desjardins joins me now.

    I want the talk first about environmental policy, right, which was clearly part of that. Lurking in the background is the question of how much change Scott Pruitt has brought.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    He’s brought significant change. He has 22 major deregulatory actions that he’s overseen. Some of the biggies on that, Jeff, the waters of the U.S., that’s something Congress helped roll back. It was a huge piece of kind of water environmental law from the Obama presidency, which is now pushed back five years, in addition to clean power plant is something that was repealed and he’s looked into.

    But I think there are real questions about how long all of these actions will last, because they have happened so quickly. Many are facing serious court challenges. There are other things like fuel efficiency that he is deciding now.

  • Jeffery Brown:

    He’s getting pushed back all over the place.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That’s right. From conservatives he’s getting support, but in the courts, there are real questions.

  • Jeffery Brown:

    You referred in your piece to a proposed rule recently, right, that he put forward requiring science to turn over raw data for studies. He refers to this as transparency in science.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right. He also likes to talk about secret science.

  • Jeffery Brown:

    Yes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is a rule he put on the table two days ago. And it is incredibly significant. What this ruled would mean is that any — the phrasing is “pivotal regulatory science,” that is science that the administration uses to base new rules on, must have all the data made public.

  • Jeffery Brown:

    The raw data.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The raw data.

  • Jeffery Brown:

    Yes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    He says that scientists haven’t been transparent and this is a man who says you can’t trust scientists. He thinks they have an agenda. He wants to get down to the facts, he says.

    However, critics point out there are many problems with this. One, that not only would this mean fewer studies, because they rely on confidential data, but it would mean few regulations, and that’s what critics say is the real agenda here.

    Look who supports this rule, you’re looking at the fossil fuel industry and you’re looking also at conservatives in general who have business interests. And critics say that that’s a real factor.

    Now, can they make this? Can they just mask this data as Pruitt suggested in their piece? Scientists say no. This is a time when data itself is a huge commodity and there will be computer programmers figuring out how to get it.

  • Jeffery Brown:

    But this goes to a much larger question about this administration, its relationship to science and scientists, clearly, right?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That’s absolutely right. This is man who says he — who does not trust science and he’s someone who thinks that he is a lawyer. He is not a scientist. And he says that this needs to be more of a business-like agency.

  • Jeffery Brown:

    Now, while everybody was watching that hearing, what about the president and the White House at this point? What signals are they sending about Scott Pruitt’s future?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I’m watching my Twitter feed right now. You know, it is significant that this is one of the president’s first nominees. It’s probably the cabinet member that he says the most positive things about.

  • Jeffery Brown:

    Because of those regulations you’re talking about, deregulation.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Because of these regulations and because he hears when he goes out to, you know, the rest of the country, from Trump supporters, that they love this man. I’m watching my Twitter feed right now. You know, it is significant that this is one of the president’s first nominees. It’s probably the cabinet member that he says the most positive things about.

  • Jeffery Brown:

    Because of those regulations you’re talking about, deregulation.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Because of these regulations and because he hears when he goes out to, you know, the rest of the country, from Trump supporters, that they love this man.

    Now, it’s significant that with all those factors, the White House is this week being very cautious and waiting to see how the cards play. You know, I think they just aren’t sure with all of these investigations if this is someone that they can support long term, and day to day, we just don’t know.

  • Jeffery Brown:

    Well, so on this day, you look at the hearing, you think about what you just said with the president, weighing the various many possible questions and scandals, weighing the policy questions, what picture emerged?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Watching these many hours of hearing today, Jeff, this was a man who was very poised. He answered questions politely. But this was also a man who repeatedly when asked about these many investigations never took personal responsibility for any of the elements in them. He repeatedly said these were staff errors.

    Occasionally, he did say he’s made changes, for instance with his travel. He no longer takes first-class flights. But he has said that he did that originally because of a security recommendation.

    Again, he does not feel personally responsible for these problems. Instead, this is man who feels he’s under attack, and he says it’s political. His critics say he’s the political one launching the attack.

  • Jeffery Brown:

    You’re watching this minute by minute.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That’s right.

  • Jeffery Brown:

    Certainly, day by day on some — for next action.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That’s right. I think for the next few weeks.

    Now, Congress is gone next week, so that helps him out to some degree. They won’t be ricocheting opinions for the time being, but there will be more investigative reports coming out.

  • Jeffery Brown:

     All right. More to come. Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    My pleasure.

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