WASHINGTON — Senior White House staff members are encouraging President Trump to fire Scott Pruitt, his embattled Environmental Protection Agency chief, according to two top administration officials. While Mr. Trump has until now championed Mr. Pruitt, the officials say the president’s enthusiasm may be cooling because of the ongoing cascade of alleged ethical and legal missteps.
Over the past few months, as Mr. Pruitt’s problems have mounted — he is now the subject of at least 11 federal investigations and some Republicans have called for his resignation — Mr. Trump has continued to support his E.P.A. chief on Twitter and in public and private remarks.
But that is likely to change in the coming weeks, the two officials said.
Since last month’s confirmation of Mr. Pruitt’s deputy, the former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, White House staff members say they believe that if Mr. Pruitt is fired or resigns, Mr. Wheeler will continue to effectively push through Mr. Trump’s agenda to help the coal industry and roll back environmental regulations.
Some Republicans have said that Mr. Wheeler, a former Capitol Hill and E.P.A. staff member — known as a low-key but highly experienced Washington insider — would quite likely be as effective, and possibly more so, than Mr. Pruitt at undoing regulations, without drawing the embarrassing headlines of his boss.
At the White House on Monday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, expressed confidence in Mr. Wheeler but declined to say whether Mr. Trump intended to fire Mr. Pruitt in the near future.
“I don’t have any personnel announcements on that front,” Ms. Sanders said. “Certainly we have confidence in the No. 2, otherwise the president wouldn’t have asked him to serve at such a senior level position within the E.P.A.”
Meanwhile, as the negative media reports about Mr. Pruitt continue, Mr. Trump is now likely to pay more attention, the officials said.
One official said there was recognition now that Mr. Pruitt’s problems were “a bottomless pit.” But the White House doesn’t know how much more there is or what direction it could take.
Privately, even many in Mr. Pruitt’s inner circle at the E.P.A. have expressed frustration with their boss’s actions.
In the past month, at least five of his senior staff members have resigned, including Samantha Dravis, his senior policy adviser; Pasquale Perrotta, his chief of security; Albert Kelly, a business associate from Mr. Pruitt’s home state of Oklahoma whom Mr. Pruitt had appointed to a top policy position at the E.P.A.; Liz Bowman, his communications director; and John Konkus, a senior press office official. As many as a dozen more senior political staff members are said to be considering resigning, according to three current staff members and one former one.
Mr. Pruitt’s actions have tried the patience of even his staunch supporters, including some Republicans.
“Republicans like what he’s done, but they don’t like how he’s done it,” said John Feehery, a Republican strategist who worked for the former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and the former majority leader Tom DeLay. “He has made some major mistakes and doesn’t seem to care that much about them. They have a lot of tolerance, but it has its limits.”
Other administration officials have resigned over similar ethics and spending controversies.
Tom Price, the former secretary of health and human services, was forced to resign last year after racking up nearly $400,000 in travel bills for chartered flights. Mr. Trump fired David J. Shulkin, the veterans affairs secretary, after an inspector general’s report concluded that he had spent too much time sightseeing on official trips and had improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets as a gift.
The head of the Environmental Protection Agency faces nearly a dozen federal inquiries into his practices. We break down the accusations by category.
Some of the 11 federal investigations into Mr. Pruitt’s behavior span a far wider range of ethics questions. The House Oversight Committee, led by Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, has opened an inquiry into Mr. Pruitt’s actions at the E.P.A., the first Republican-led investigation of a Trump administration cabinet member. On May 2, Mr. Gowdy’s staff began conducting transcribed, closed-door interviews with Mr. Pruitt’s closest aides.
A government watchdog office has concluded that Mr. Pruitt broke the law with the $43,000 installation of a secure telephone booth. He remains under investigation for several ethics concerns, including his condominium-rental agreement with the wife of an energy lobbyist, and the accusations that he demoted or sidelined E.P.A. employees who questioned his spending. He has been criticized for lavish expenditures on foreign travel, including a trip to Morocco — a country where the E.P.A. has no policy agenda — that was arranged by a lobbyist. His domestic travel also came under scrutiny after a former Pruitt staff member told Congressional investigators that Mr. Pruitt often sought to justify travel home to Oklahoma, directing his employees to “find me something to do” there.
Still, Mr. Pruitt’s supporters, including some of Mr. Trump’s most prominent friends in the coal and oil industries, note that the E.P.A. administrator, perhaps more than any cabinet member, has pushed through a policy agenda that allows Mr. Trump to claim that he is fulfilling a core campaign promise: stripping away regulations that he says stymie the growth of the American economy.
Some of those rollbacks have come at the direct request of Robert E. Murray, the chief executive of Murray Energy, one of the nation’s largest coal producers, who is a longtime Trump supporter and donated $300,000 to the president’s inauguration.
“Administrator Pruitt has been the star of the Trump Administration,” Mr. Murray said in a statement. “He is taking the actions necessary to reverse the illegal and destructive regulations of the Obama Administration.”
Harold Hamm, the chief executive of Continental Resources, an Oklahoma-based oil and gas company, who has advised Mr. Trump and championed Mr. Pruitt, has told people close to the White House that he continues to support the E.P.A. leader.
During an April 26 appearance before a Congressional committee, at which Mr. Pruitt had been expected to come under fire for his alleged ethical lapses, conservative Republicans from farm and rust belt states lavishly praised Mr. Pruitt for his policy work.
Representative Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who advised the Trump campaign and is running for Senate, told Mr. Pruitt, “I think the greatest sin that you’ve committed, if any, is that you have actually done what President Trump ran on, what he won on, and what he has commissioned you to do in finding some balance in both carrying out the mission of environmental protection, while at the same time looking over economy and jobs creation.”
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