Sharper words from Democrats
Senator Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the full appropriations committee, drew laughter when he questioned Mr. Pruitt’s claim that he was required by his security detail to fly first class because of threats to his life, saying “Nobody even knew who you were.”
“You have to fly first class? Oh come on,” Mr. Leahy said. He said Mr. Pruitt had become “a laughingstock.”
Senator Leahy told Mr. Pruitt he should be protecting the air and water rather than “big polluters” and “industry friends.”
Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico said he had asked the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, to investigate whether the E.P.A. acted improperly when it appeared to mock Democrats on Twitter after the Senate voted to confirm the agency’s second-in-command, Andrew Wheeler.
The tweet, sent from the agency’s official account on April 13, said, “The Senate does its duty: Andrew Wheeler confirmed by Senate as deputy administrator of @EPA. The Democrats couldn’t block the confirmation of environmental policy expert and former EPA staffer under both a Republican and a Democrat president.”
Mr. Udall asked the accountability office to issue a legal opinion on whether the tweet violated the Antideficiency Act, which prohibits the use of federal funds for publicity or propaganda.
Mr. Udall also noted that the G.A.O. found that the E.P.A. had violated federal laws when Mr. Pruitt’s office purchased and installed a $43,000 secure phone booth. “I have a lot of questions for you on this topic,” Senator Udall said. “One month later you haven’t followed the law by reporting to congress or the president, your boss, how you let this happen and how you plan to fix it.”
He called on Mr. Pruitt to resign.
A lifeline is thrown
As Democrats continued to level accusations against Mr. Pruitt, Senator Murkowski asked the administrator, “Do you have anything you would like to add in response?” It was a move we’ve seen before: citing concern in an opening statement about Mr. Pruitt’s spending and ethical issues but then allowing Mr. Pruitt to issue an open-ended defense.
In response Mr. Pruitt denied, as he did before two different House panels last month, that he was to blame.
“I would not make the same decisions again,” he said, without detailing which ones. But, he noted, in some cases the E.P.A. was not organized in a way to prevent spending abuses. He specifically cited the secure phone booth, saying, “There were not proper controls early to ensure a legal review.”
Mr. Pruitt said he had introduced a new process afterward to ensure that any expenditure over $5,000 must be approved by the E.P.A. chief of staff and chief financial officer.
The Mueller investigation
Senator Udall asked Mr. Pruitt if he supported the completion of the investigation by a special prosecutor, Robert S. Mueller III, into whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russians.
Mr. Pruitt, who has labored to remain in President Trump’s good graces, initially seemed to suggest that he was unaware of the investigation.
“As a former attorney general — and you and I share that responsibility, we didn’t’ serve at the same time — and you’re also a law enforcement official at the E.P.A., do you support special counsel Mueller completing his investigation?” Senator Udall asked.
Mr. Pruitt responded, “I’m sorry, ranking member Udall, investigation into? — ”
“A simple yes or no,” Senator Udall responded.
“I’m not familiar — I think the process is continuing,” Mr. Pruitt replied. He added: “I think as attorney general, it’s important for law enforcement, those investigators that serve prosecutors to be able to provide adequate information to them to make informed decisions about how they will proceed as a prosecutor. I did that as attorney general and I would trust that would happen at the federal level as well.”
Mr. Udall shot back, “As you know, the right answer is yes.”
A silent protest
A woman in the audience held up a sign that read “Mr. Corrupt” as Mr. Pruitt began his opening statement. A Capitol Police officer told her that if she did that again she would be escorted out of the hearing room. She put down the sign.
Minutes later, a group of six people wearing green shirts saying “Fire Pruitt” stood up and walked silently out of the room.