WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump expressed support on Tuesday for EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, as U.S. lawmakers including two fellow Republicans called for Pruitt's resignation after reports he paid far below market rates to live in a condo owned by a lobbyist.
Trump, in an appearance with Baltic leaders at the White House, answered a question about whether he still supported Pruitt by saying: "I hope he’s going to be great."
The White House is reviewing the Environmental Protection Agency chief's activities after reports about his link to the lobbyist, who deals with issues overseen by the agency, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.
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Pruitt defended his actions in an interview on Tuesday with the Washington Examiner, denying the owner had any clients with business before the EPA and insisting the EPA general counsel believed that $50 a day, or about $1,500 per month, for a room was reasonable. Apartments in the neighborhood generally cost more.
Pruitt said those critical of his housing and air travel costs were really out to stop the administration's efforts to cut regulations, which he said had saved billions, including $1 billion in reduced EPA regulations, the Examiner reported.
"Do I think that's something that folks don't like? Absolutely. And do I think they'll use any means to (stop) it? Absolutely. And it's frustrating," Pruitt was quoted as saying.
Several lawmakers called for Pruitt's resignation on Tuesday, including Republican Representatives Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. The EPA inspector general was already investigating Pruitt's frequent use of first-class flights and installation of a $43,000 secure phone booth to conduct confidential calls.
Pruitt's "corruption scandals are an embarrassment to the Administration, and his conduct is grossly disrespectful to American taxpayers. It's time for him to resign or for @POTUS to dismiss him," Curbelo, a moderate Republican, said on Twitter.
Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who opposes slashing environmental regulations, asked the EPA's inspector general to investigate the condo issue.
EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox defended Pruitt's record, from pushing to leave the Paris climate pact to working to repeal the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era program to cut greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-burning electricity plants.
Trump called Pruitt on Monday night with a reassuring message, an administration official said on Tuesday. "Scott, keep your head up. Keep fighting. We've got your back," Trump told Pruitt, the official told Reuters.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly phoned Pruitt on Tuesday morning to reinforce the message, the official said.
A White House official, asked for comment, said only that the two calls had taken place and would not elaborate.
Trump has been retooling his Cabinet, ousting both David Shulkin as secretary of the Veterans Administration and Rex Tillerson as secretary of state last month.
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Timothy Gardner, Doina Chiacu and David Alexander; Editing by David Gregorio and Peter Cooney)