AP FACT CHECK: Trump and the Washington blame game

In this May 16, 2018, photo, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt appears before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington. Pruitt claimed credit for pollution cleanups done mostly by the Obama administration while flubbing facts about his 2017 condo deal and blaming underlings for his ethical woes. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) –The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Deflect blame for the bad things. Take undue credit for the good things.

When President Donald Trump and his environmental chief sat down with different audiences this past week, the blame game was on display. So was some chest-thumping.

Trump tried to lay responsibility on Democrats for the separation of children from parents at the border, even though the policy comes from his own administration. He cited outdated numbers to boast about a decline in illegal border crossings.

Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt claimed credit for pollution cleanups done mostly by the Obama administration while flubbing facts about his 2017 condo deal and blaming underlings for his ethical woes.

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A look at Trump’s statements at a forum with California officials on immigration and Pruitt’s testimony to a Senate committee:

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TRUMP to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Wednesday: “I know what you’re going through right now with families is very tough but those are the bad laws that the Democrats gave us. We have to break up families. The Democrats gave us that law. It’s a horrible thing where you have to break up families. The Democrats gave us that law and they don’t want to do anything about it. They’ll leave it like that ’cause they don’t want to make any changes. And now you’re breaking up families because of the Democrats. It’s terrible.”

THE FACTS: Not so. No law that “the Democrats gave us” mandates the separation of children from their parents at the border.

A 2008 law designed to combat child trafficking has been described by Trump and his administration as a principal reason for “catch-and-release” policies that he’s trying to end at the border.

The law says children traveling alone from countries other than Mexico or Canada must be released in the “least restrictive setting” — often to family or a government-run shelter — while their cases slowly wind through immigration court. It was designed to accommodate an influx of children fleeing to the U.S. from Central America.

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It had the support of Republicans and Democrats, passing the House and Senate unanimously. Republican George W. Bush signed it into law as one of his last acts as president.

The law says nothing about breaking up families. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal entries, pledging to criminally prosecute people with few or no previous offenses. If parents are jailed, they are separated from children who joined them under protocols described in the 2008 law.

Administration officials have acknowledged that about 700 children have been separated from their parents since October. That figure is certain to increase once the zero-tolerance policy takes hold; nearly 50,000 Border Patrol arrests since October were of people who came as families. That’s about 1 in 4 arrests by the agents.

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TRUMP: “Our numbers are much better than in the past, but they’re not nearly acceptable and not nearly as good as what we could have. We’re down 40 percent from those other standards, so that’s really good — meaning 40 percent crossings.”

THE FACTS: That claim of a 40 percent drop in illegal crossings in a year is based on old statistics. Yes, Border Patrol arrests plummeted to the lowest level since 1971 during the last budget year. But they began a sharp and steady climb after Trump’s first few months in office. One likely explanation is that people who initially took a wait-and-see attitude toward Trump are now taking their chances.

Overall border arrests in April — which add people who are stopped at land crossings and other official points of entry — topped 50,000 for a second straight month. That was more than triple the number from a year earlier, which was the lowest tally on record since the Homeland Security Department was created in 2003.

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Border arrests are an imprecise measure of how many people are attempting to enter the country illegally, because the numbers who make it into the U.S. are not known. But when arrests are up, that’s taken by the government to mean that more people are trying.

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PRUITT, referring Wednesday to a man who was listed as the landlord of a bargain-priced condo Pruitt rented in Washington last year: “Steve Hart is someone that was not registered as a lobbyist in 2017. He’s a longtime associate and friend.”

THE FACTS: That’s wrong. Disclosure reports show Hart was a registered lobbyist for 35 separate entities in 2017. Among those he represented was Cheniere Energy, which owns the only operational liquefied natural gas export terminal in the U.S. The reports show Hart worked on “Issues related to the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG), approval of LNG exports and export facilities.”

Pruitt has been a vocal booster of LNG exports while at EPA, even taking a taxpayer-funded trip to Morocco in December to help persuade the North African kingdom to import more gas from U.S. producers. Such increases in LNG exports would probably benefit Cheniere.

Pruitt rented the luxury Capitol Hill condo from a corporation co-owned by Hart’s wife. He paid just $50 a night, and only paid on nights when he stayed there. A copy of the lease, reviewed by The Associated Press, shows Steven Hart was originally listed as the landlord but his name was scratched out and substituted with that of his wife, a health policy lobbyist. Pruitt used the condo last year from March through at least August.

In past public comments, Pruitt claimed Hart had no business before EPA in 2017. That turned out not to be true, either.

Records show Hart met with Pruitt in his office at EPA headquarters last year and the lobbyist emailed with EPA staff on behalf of his client Smithfield Foods. The meeting happened in July 2017, during the condo rental period, and was described by Hart last month as a discussion about the Chesapeake Bay. Smithfield and its charitable foundation have been involved with efforts to clean up the bay since EPA fined the company $12.6 million in 1997 for illegally dumping hog waste into a tributary.

In addition to the companies he personally represented, Hart was the top executive at the powerhouse lobbying firm Williams & Jensen before retiring early as a result of the scandal over Pruitt’s condo deal. Records show Hart’s former firm represented a lengthy roster of companies last year with billions at stake over regulatory decisions made by EPA, including ExxonMobil Corp., the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company.

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SEN. TOM UDALL, Democrat of New Mexico, to Pruitt at the Senate hearing: “Do you see a conflict of interest in accepting a pretty good housing deal from a lobbyist couple that has business before the EPA?”

PRUITT: “Senator, the ethics officials at the agency actually — actually had performed two ethics reviews, saying that the lease terms are consistent with comparable rates in the marketplace.”

THE FACTS: That’s a misleading seal of approval. EPA ethics officials were only asked to review Pruitt’s 2017 condo lease after news broke about the administrator’s unusual living arrangement. EPA lawyer Kevin Minoli, who wrote the reviews, later said he only considered the lease as written, specifically the claim that Pruitt only rented one bedroom for the $50 nightly rate. But it was later disclosed that Pruitt’s daughter, who was a summer intern at the White House, occupied a second bedroom at no cost.

Because he only paid for the nights he was there, Pruitt forked over a total of $6,100 over the six-month period he leased the property, an average of about $1,000 a month.

Recent rental listings for two-bedroom apartments in the neighborhood show they typically go for far more than what Pruitt paid. A two-bedroom townhome on the same block as the one leased by Pruitt was advertised for rent in April at $3,750 a month. Another two-bedroom unit on the next block was advertised as available for $4,740 a month.

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PRUITT, asked if he had told his security personnel that he wanted his motorcade to use sirens and flashing lights for nonemergency trips like shopping: “No, I don’t recall that.” He said “there are policies that the agency follows, the agents follow, and — and to my knowledge, they followed it in all instances.”

THE FACTS: After that comment, Udall disclosed an internal email indicating Pruitt’s interest in riding around with sirens and lights. The email, written by then-EPA special agent Pasquale “Nino” Perrotta just days after Pruitt’s confirmation in February 2017, has the subject line “Lights and Sirens.” It added “Btw – Administrator encourages the use.”

Pruitt later promoted Perrotta to lead his round-the-clock personal protective detail. Former EPA officials have told AP that Pruitt made the change after Perrotta’s predecessor refused to use lights and sirens in nonemergencies.

Pruitt broadly denied responsibility for alleged ethical missteps that have prompted about a dozen investigations, blaming questionable actions on security agents, public affairs workers and other subordinates.

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PRUITT: “In 2017, we removed over three times the number of polluted sites of contaminated communities across the country, as compared to the previous administration. And, in 2018, we are on pace to remove as many as 10 times the number.”

THE FACTS: As he has before, Pruitt is taking credit for work done by the Obama administration while disparaging its record.

The EPA declared seven cleanups complete from its Superfund priority list last year, compared with two sites delisted the year before. That’s indeed a more than threefold increase. But records show that construction work at all seven sites cited by Pruitt’s EPA, such as removing soil or drilling wells to suck out contaminated groundwater, was completed years before Pruitt was confirmed as the agency’s chief in February.

Removing sites from the list is a procedural step that occurs after monitoring data show that remaining levels of harmful contaminates meet cleanup targets, which were often set by the EPA decades ago.

An analysis of EPA records by the AP in January showed that the seven sites delisted last year fell short of the average pace set under the administrations of Obama and George W. Bush, even in their opening years.

Trump’s proposed 2018 budget sought to cut the Superfund program by 30 percent but Congress did not go along. EPA lists more than 1,300 Superfund sites that are at various stages of cleanup.

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Spagat reported from San Diego. Associated Press writers Michael Biesecker and Jill Colvin also contributed.

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Online:

Quarterly lobbying disclosure reports for 2017:

https://tinyurl.com/y7q5he4q

https://tinyurl.com/ycpskln2

https://tinyurl.com/y9323mza

https://tinyurl.com/ya44qahs

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