WASHINGTON (CN) – Just hours before President Trump's first State of the Union address on Tuesday, his Environmental Protection Agency chief sought to distance himself from 2016 statements in which he called Trump a "bully" who would abuse the Constitution if elected.
Scott Pruitt was Oklahoma's attorney general and a supporter of Jeb Bush for the GOP president nomination when he made the comments of a conservative radio talk show.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., reminded Pruitt of those comments during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Tuesday, going so far as to have an aide hold the quotes up on large signs.
The Rhode Island Democrat's office also released audio of Pruitt's 2016 comments to talk radio host Pat Campbell of station KFAQ in Tulsa.
Pruitt, a regular guest on Campbell's show, said he could not recall making those specific comments about Trump, but if he did, he now disavows them.
Pruitt later issued a statement praising President Trump as "the most consequential leader of our time."
The clip that Whitehouse sought to score political points with Tuesday was unearthed by Documented, a left-leaning watchdog group.
After Campbell asked Pruitt if he's a Trump supporter, Pruitt responds with a simple "no" before going on to say, "I believe that Donald Trump in the White House would be more abusive to the Constitution than Barack Obama — and that's saying a lot."
"I think executive orders with Donald Trump would be a very blunt instrument with respect to the Constitution," Pruitt continued.
Pruitt also agreed with a characterization repeated by Campbell of Trump as "our bully" for the GOP.
"I think he has tendencies that we see in emerging countries around the world where — he goes to the disaffected — those individuals. And says, 'Look you give me power and I will give voice to your concerns,'" he said of Trump. "And that's a dangerous place to be. ... But President Obama, we don't need to replace him with another individual — as you said, our bully — in the White House, to do what he's done from the Republican side of things."
As EPA administrator, Pruitt has cited Trump's executive orders as the basis for a wide array of regulatory rollbacks, including moves to weaken limits on emissions of toxic heavy metals from coal-fired power plants and water pollution from fossil-fuel operations. Environmentalists say those changes will lead directly to dirtier air and water.
"EPA has moved to either repeal, reconsider or delay at least 25 environmental and public health protections in the last year alone," said Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the committee. "Those aren't achievements, Mr. Pruitt. Those are the exact opposite — clear failures to act."
According to the New York Times, 33 environmental rules have been overturned since Trump took office in January 2017. That figure is supported from research by Harvard and Columbia University law schools.
There are also 24 policy rollbacks in progress while nine other Obama-era initiatives remain in limbo.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., wanted Pruitt to explain the rationale behind some reversals, namely 15 actions taken to diminish air quality like the cancellation of methane emissions reporting or the reversal of a Clinton-era rule regulating industrial polluters.