MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
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Now a story about Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency. He is fighting off calls to resign after a series of news reports raising ethical questions. The latest comes from The Atlantic, a story headlined "Scott Pruitt Bypassed The White House To Give Big Raises To Favorite Aides." Well, I spoke with the reporter on that story, Robinson Meyer, about what he found.
ROBINSON MEYER: When Scott Pruitt moved to D.C. after he was the Oklahoma attorney general, he brought a whole bunch of aides with him. Two of them were named Millan Hupp, who's kind of his assistant who did scheduling work, and another was Sarah Greenwalt, who was his general counsel when he was in Oklahoma.
MEYER: They worked for him for the past year. They've been in these political appointee positions kind of in the front office of the EPA. And then earlier this month, he went to the White House, and he said, I'd like to give these two women raises.
KELLY: The White House said no to these raises. And then what did Pruitt do?
MEYER: So there's a law called the Safe Drinking Water Act that lets the EPA administrator hire 30 people across the agency, and they're supposed to be experts or specialists, people in custom roles that are going to go into these really stressed departments. Pruitt realized he could use this law to basically rehire these two aides into the agency. And because then they wouldn't be political appointees, they'd be administrative hires. He could set their salary. And...
KELLY: He could pay them whatever he wanted.
MEYER: Exactly. And so he gave them the $56,000 and the $28,000 raise that the White House denied.
KELLY: What is the ethics question raised here?
MEYER: So I think there's two ethics questions. I mean, of course he might be within the letter of the law. Within the spirit of the law, there were a number of civil servants who told me they would never have done this because it would have appeared that he was seeking private gain with public money.
And there's a second concern here, too, which is that he also hired a woman who now leads the toxic chemical office, Nancy Beck, using the Safe Drinking Water Act law. And because she was hired administratively, because she didn't go through the White House, she never had to sign or agree to President Trump's ethics pledge. And that meant that she could work on issues that she'd lobbied on as a chemical industry lobbyists in the past two years.
KELLY: This comes as Scott Pruitt is facing other ethics questions. There have been questions raised in recent days about his housing, about the $50-a-night condo that he rented on Capitol Hill. It comes as there have been questions raised about his travel arrangements, about first-class travel. So let me put this question to you, Rob Meyer. Can Scott Pruitt survive?
MEYER: What we've seen in the Trump administration is that it seems like nothing is sticking, nothing's happening. And then suddenly gravity reasserts itself. And the president's very upset, and the Cabinet member resigns. I think it's too early to say. On Pruitt, I guess the one thing I'd note is that he has historically been extremely successful at winning the president's favor. It was Scott Pruitt of course, not the secretary of state, who spoke at the White House Rose Garden ceremony when President Trump announced the U.S. would be leaving the Paris agreement on climate change.
KELLY: Well, and I will - I'll inject this piece of news, which is that President Trump was asked about Scott Pruitt at lunch today, and he said - I'll quote - "I hope he's going to be great."
MEYER: Well, he (laughter) - I would say that's an interesting choice of tense for the president when Scott Pruitt has been in office for more than a year. So I suppose we'll keep watching developments.
KELLY: Robinson Meyer, staff writer for The Atlantic, thanks very much.
MEYER: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.
KELLY: Well, after we taped that interview, the EPA responded to Meyer. A spokesperson said in part, the Safe Drinking Water Act provides the EPA with broad authority to appoint scientific, engineering, professional, legal and administrative positions within the EPA without regard to the civil service laws. The statement continues, this is clear authority that has been relied on by previous administrations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.