EPA chief Scott Pruitt defended flying first class on the government tab by saying the "toxic environment politically" has led to uncomfortable interactions with travelers and security concerns.
Pruitt's explanation came just days after The Washington Post published an analysis of Pruitt's expenses revealing exorbitant travel costs — including one flight on a military plane costing more than $35,000.
Pruitt told the Manchester Union Leader he flew first class from Washington to Boston en route to New Hampshire to meet with GOP Gov. Chris Sununu and tour a toxic waste Superfund site Tuesday. But he said such travel decisions are made by his security detail.
“We’ve had some incidents on travel dating back to when I first started serving in the March-April timeframe,” Pruitt told the paper. “We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment."
Pruitt cited a lack of "civility" and said "the level of protection is determined by the level of threat.”
Pruitt was not required to submit a request for the travel upgrade to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, despite a new policy enacted last year in the wake of a travel scandal involving Health Secretary Tom Price’s use of charter aircraft. Commercial air travel is exempt from that policy, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
“That wasn’t approved by the White House,” she said of Pruitt’s travel.
The costs come as hard financial times appear poised to befall the agency. President Trump's proposed budget calls for a cut of more than 20% in EPA spending.
The Post, citing information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, cited one stretch in early June when taxpayer-funded travel for Pruitt and his top aides cost at least $90,000. The figure does not include costs for his security detail.
The EPA says Pruitt's expenses have been approved by federal ethics officials.
Last week, Pruitt sparked controversy by asserting that global warming might be beneficial because "humans have most flourished" during warming trends. That drew fire from climate-change experts.
Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Penn State, called Pruitt's remark an example of the "stages of denial."
"As the evidence becomes ever more compelling that climate change is real and human caused, the forces of denial turn to other specious argument, like 'it will be good for us,'" Mann said.
Contributing: Gregory Korte