Watch CNN Special Report “Pruitt Under Fire: The Battle at the EPA” on Friday in the 9 p.m. ET hour after an extended “AC360.”
President Donald Trump’s support for Scott Pruitt may be wavering as White House aides renew a push to convince the President he should fire his embattled EPA chief, several sources told CNN.
White House officials saw a fresh opening to sway Trump against Pruitt late last week after the Atlantic published a report accusing a Pruitt aide of trying to spread negative stories about a fellow Cabinet member, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The report struck a chord with the President, who was bothered by the development and has grown more open to his aides’ arguments that Pruitt must go, a White House aide and source close to the White House said.
Despite nearly a dozen investigations into Pruitt’s conduct, Trump has resisted calls to fire Pruitt, worried about disruptions to his deregulatory agenda and concerned that it would be difficult to confirm a successor. White House aides have assured the President the agency’s work can continue unabated if the EPA’s recently-confirmed deputy administrator, Andrew Wheeler, takes over.
“The ground has absolutely shifted,” said a source close to the White House, who said the President is becoming convinced that Pruitt is doing more harm than good in his position.
But it was the allegation that Pruitt’s team was taking aim at Zinke in an effort to distract from the EPA administrator’s ethical troubles that has especially troubled the President and his aides, who were angry after catching wind of the reported plot, one White House source said.
‘A line was crossed’
“A line was crossed,” said the source, who said Trump was made aware of the story after it broke on Friday, said.
Representatives for the White House and EPA didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A senior administration official said White House aides looked into the possibility of firing Michael Abboud, the Pruitt aide accused of shopping the stories, after the report of his behavior first surfaced. But aides in the personnel office discovered Abboud was outside of the White House’s jurisdiction and could only be removed by Pruitt, the senior administration official said.
Abboud did not respond to a request for comment.
For weeks, White House chief of staff John Kelly and other senior White House aides have urged Pruitt’s firing. But in a significant development, two sources said Pruitt is also losing the support of one of his most loyal West Wing defenders, the White House legislative director Marc Short.
“I think he’s finding it tougher and tougher to defend all these allegations,” one White House official said.
Short, who is tasked with shepherding nominees on Capitol Hill, denied that he is wavering on Pruitt, telling CNN: “I remain supportive of Scott.”
What’s clear is that White House aides are leading a new push to convince the President to abandon his EPA administrator.
Another White House official noted efforts to turn Trump against his EPA administrator have persisted for weeks as allegations against Pruitt have piled up and spawned multiple investigations into his conduct.
“The push isn’t new. Some people here wanted him out a month ago,” the aide said. “I think they see an opportunity with the Atlantic piece to make their case.”
“I think there’s a push to force (Trump’s) hand,” the White House aide added.
Until recently, discussions with Trump about firing Pruitt gained little traction, in part because Trump continues to appreciate the deregulatory work his EPA administrator has performed.
Multiple White House officials are pointing to their struggle to shepherd a series of candidates through the confirmation process as the main thing keeping Pruitt in his job.
Growing list of scandals
Pruitt faces a growing list of scandals that would easily sink a high ranking official in most administrations. Reports ranging from his lavish travel accommodations to conflicting explanations for why his aides received significant pay raises without White House approval have created a series of headaches for an administration beset by controversy.
Making matter worse: The trouble for Pruitt is piling up as the White House tries to recover from its failed nomination of Ronny Jackson to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. Meanwhile, Trump’s pick for CIA director, Gina Haspel, is facing a potentially tough battle in the Senate as she prepares for her Wednesday confirmation hearing.
In an ironic way, those challenges have helped Pruitt. A senior administration official noted that even Mike Pompeo, who was previously confirmed by the Senate to run the CIA, faced headwinds in his recent confirmation vote to become secretary of state. A new EPA chief, the official noted, could face even stronger resistance in a narrowly divided Senate.
Despite the seemingly shifting tides, no one would predict whether Pruitt’s departure is imminent.
“No clue with Trump,” said one source close to the White House. “It could happen today, next week, never,” the source said.