WASHINGTON — With his status at the Environmental Protection Agency increasingly on the line, Administrator Scott Pruitt faced a tough grilling Thursday morning on Capitol Hill but was unapologetic about his leadership and activities.

“I have to take the responsibility to make changes to the agency” based on the “learning curve” he and others have had, he told lawmakers at the first of two hearings. But he attributed the vast majority of allegations about his ethics and management decisions to policy critics.

“Those who have attacked the EPA and attacked me are doing so because they want to derail the president’s agenda. I’m not going to let that happen.” Pruitt said. “A lie doesn’t become true just because it appears on the front page of the newspaper.”

His appearance before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment will be followed by afternoon testimony before the House Appropriations subcommittee on interior, environment and related agencies. Both hearings were scheduled to discuss the EPA’s budget, but Pruitt is being questioned more about the escalating controversies surrounding him in recent weeks and policy actions he has pursued.

Opening the Energy and Commerce hearing, Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., told Pruitt that “I am generally pleased with the direction that you’re taking at the EPA,” but that he would have to address reports of wasteful spending and other charges of ethical misconduct.

“It is no secret that there had been many stories in the press about the management and operations of the agency and your dealings with potentially regulated sectors,” Shimkus said. “I consider much of this narrative to be a distraction, but on this committee cannot ignore. I look forward to hearing your side of the story on the rumors and allegations you’re facing.”

The subcommittee’s top Democrat, Rep. Paul Tonko of New York, delivered a harsh fusillade as Pruitt looked on impassively with a few of his top aides seated behind him. After ticking off several charges about the administrator’s personal financial dealings and professional decisions, Tonko said, “And in almost all cases, the more we have learned, the worse they get.”

He concluded by telling Pruitt, “You have failed as a steward of American taxpayer dollars and of the environment.”

And Rep. Frank Pallone, of New Jersey, the Energy and Commerce’s top Democrat, quickly informed him, “You are unfit to hold public office, and you are undeserving of the public trust,” adding that with any other White House, he would “be long gone.”

Repeatedly, Democrats pushed Pruitt for specific details. Tonko questioned whether Pruitt had authorized massive raises for two of his aides, senior counsel Sarah Greenwalt and director of scheduling and advance Millan Hupp. The congressman also asked if Pruitt authorized chief of staff Ryan Jackson to sign the raises, and if Greenwalt was accurate in emailing a colleague that the raises had been “discussed” with the administrator in advance.

“I was not aware of the amount,” Pruitt replied, “nor was I aware of the [White House Presidential Personnel Office] process not being respected.”

Pallone pressed Pruitt on whether he had retaliated against employees who questioned some of his spending decisions. “Has it always been your practice to fire people who disagree with you?” he asked.

Pruitt rebutted the charge. “I don’t ever recall a conversation to that end,” he said.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, mounted a defense as he focused on some of the controversies that have put Pruitt’s job at risk.

“You’re not the first person to be the victim, for lack of a better term, of Washington politics,” Barton told him. Referring to the fact that the administrator frequently traveled in first class during his first year at EPA, Barton inquired, “Is it illegal to fly first class?”

Pruitt said that those tickets had been approved by the agency’ travel and security offices, prompting Barton to reply, “But it’s not illegal. It may look bad, but it’s not illegal.”

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.V., described the myriad allegations Pruitt faces as “a classic display of innuendo and McCarthyism,” adding that he was disappointed his colleagues across the aisle couldn’t restrict their questions to ones about policy. “Some just can’t resist the limelight, the opportunity to grandstand,” he accused.

Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, echoed that criticism, saying, “I think it is shameful this hearing today has turned into a personal attack hearing and a shameful attempt to denigrate the work that’s being done at the EPA.”

The administrator did make one concession to his critics during an exchange with Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., regarding the $43,000 privacy phone booth he installed in his office last year. Previously, Pruitt had likened the booth to a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), saying he needed it to have secure conversations with the White House and other administration officials. Earlier this month the Government Accountability Office issued a report that did not assess the security merits of the booth but said Pruitt violated federal spending laws by spending more than $5,000 upgrading his office without notifying Congress in advance.

Pruitt acknowledged that the phone booth “is actually not a SCIF,” even as he pushed back about the GAO’s conclusion. The EPA’s general counsel believes “that’s actually not the case,” he said.

Even as the questioning continued, protesters stood in the room silently holding up signs saying, “Mr. Corruption” with a picture of Pruitt. Some sported green T-shirts reading, “Impeach Pruitt.”

Outside the Rayburn House Office Building, as Capitol Police officers ringed the perimeter, staffers from the advocacy group Friends of the Earth drove around in a billboard truck with a sign about Pruitt’s discount housing arrangement last year with a lobbyist and her husband.

The administrator spent most of the past week rehearsing answers aimed at deflecting some of the most serious allegations about his ethics and management decisions. Several staffers said he huddled privately with his closest aides, outlining plans to blame others for some decisions, such as the large pay raises given two staffers who moved with him from Oklahoma to Washington.

Asked about those preparations, EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox called the hearings “an opportunity to reiterate the accomplishments of President Trump’s EPA, which includes working to repeal [President Barack] Obama’s Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States, providing regulatory certainty and declaring a war on lead – all while returning to Reagan-era staffing levels.”

But in the face of the multitude of investigations over his leadership, by the EPA inspector general, the House oversight committee, the Government Accountability Office and the White House, Pruitt’s status seems far from secure.

According to senior administration officials, White House budget director Mick Mulvaney has expanded an inquiry into the nearly $43,000 soundproof phone booth Pruitt had installed in his office to cover other costly expenditures, including tickets on first-class flights and stays at boutique hotels.

And the White House Counsel’s Office is examining allegations of unethical behavior, among them Pruitt’s decision to rent part of a Capitol Hill condo for $50 a night from the lobbyist and her husband, who had business before the agency.

Even some supporters in Congress are growing impatient, with GOP lawmakers demanding greater accountability and telling Pruitt allies to stand down from praising him. Nearly all Republicans have stopped short of calling for his resignation, however.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said in a statement Wednesday that he has “been pleased” with Pruitt’s work “rolling back regulations and restoring the EPA to its proper size and scope, but these latest reports are new to me. While I have no reason to believe they are true, they are concerning and I think we should hear directly from Administrator Pruitt about them.”

Inside the White House, the EPA chief has lost the backing of many senior aides, including Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, and communications officials, lawyers and Cabinet affairs officials, whose calls he ignores. He is not interested in “turning the page,” as one senior administration official put it Wednesday.

Pruitt, for his part, believes the White House is leaking damaging details about him and is “out to get him,” in the words of a Pruitt ally.

Trump is not ready to remove Pruitt from his post, according to individuals who have spoken with him, but he has become more concerned as new allegations have continued to surface.

Marc Short, a senior Trump aide and longtime Koch brothers political operative, remains one of the few in the administration willing to defend him, administration officials said. Short has told donors and advisers in recent days that Pruitt has done well at the agency.

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