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.
“Fifteen diminished [air quality.] Zero improved it. Yet I hear quite a bit on your interest for air quality,” Merkley said, asking “How many of those [reversals] were supported by the American Lung Association?” “I’m not sure,” Pruitt said.
Merkley asked the same about support from the American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization which often lobbies for clean air protections in order to reduce childhood ailments connected to pollution.
“I’m not sure,” Pruitt repeated. “I’m sure you’ll advise me.”
Merkley retorted: “If I was giving you advice, I’d say run the agency to improve air quality instead of diminishing it.”
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., pressed Pruitt for an update on his self-proclaimed “war on lead” in drinking water. The EPA administrator promised it would be a priority during his confirmation hearing last year.
“You called it one of the greatest environmental threats in our country. You said you wanted to eradicate lead poisoning in 10 years. I asked you then what safe blood lead levels were for children and you didn’t know. Given your ‘war on lead’ I’d assume you know now?” Duckworth asked.
Pruitt confirmed that 15 parts-per-billion is the legal acceptable level but some states, he acknowledged, wanted to lower that level.
“I don’t think there is a safe level. We need to eradicate it from our drinking water [altogether],” he added.
But the Democrats said the rhetoric doesn’t match EPA action, with the agency reporting it won’t finalize lead removal or pollution rules for at least two more years.
“Now, during your ‘war on lead’ we understand updates to the rule do not occur until 2020? A two-year delay is not acceptable,” she said. “I have two children home. They can’t wait 700 days for this.”
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., offered Pruitt a chance explain the year of reversals at the agency and the culture shift he believes Pruitt is developing there.
“We have to wrestle with the question: what is true environmentalism?” Pruitt said. “As we ask and answer that question… many say prohibition. Even though we’ve been blessed with natural resources to power and feed the world, we put up fences to that and we’ve never been about that as a country… but the American people expect us to use natural resources for stewardship and not allow prohibition to be our aim.”
Pruitt was also pressed on foreign trips he made in December, particularly a four-day stint in Morocco where it is believed he promoted the sale of American natural gas.
This type of trip would ordinarily fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Energy.
“That’s something the secretary of energy would do or perhaps someone who is running for the governor of Oklahoma,” Duckworth said, referring to rumors that Pruitt has traveled so frequently between his home state and Washington, D.C. over the last year because he is laying groundwork for a run as governor there.
“Can I assume, like all decent Americans, you did not find Morocco to be a shithole when you visited?” the senator asked, referring to Trump’s derogatory reference to African nations and other countries during an immigration meeting with lawmakers earlier this month.
Committee chairman and Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, a Republican, did not allow Pruitt to answer.
Instead, when it was his turn to speak, Barrasso praised Pruitt’s leadership of the agency.
“Administrator Pruitt has … balanced the need to prioritize environmental protection with the desires of Americans to have thriving and economically sustainable communities,” the senator said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.