WASHINGTON -- Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt sought to distance himself Tuesday from his 2016 statements that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump is a bully who, if elected, would abuse the Constitution.
Pruitt made the comments in February 2016 while appearing on a conservative talk radio program in Oklahoma, where he served as the state's Republican attorney general. At the time, Pruitt supported Jeb Bush for the GOP nomination.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse sought to use Pruitt's own words against him during an oversight hearing and had 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 said he appeared on Campbell's show several times, but could not recall making those specific comments about Trump, who appointed him a year later to lead EPA. Pruitt added that he now would not agree with his past comments.
Pruitt later issued a statement praising President Trump as "the most consequential leader of our time."
But asked by Campbell two years ago if he was a big Trump supporter, Pruitt replied "No, no." The clip of from the program was unearthed by Documented, a left-leaning watchdog group.
"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," Pruitt said during the 2016 interview. "I think executive orders with Donald Trump would be a very blunt instrument with respect to the Constitution."
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.
Whitehouse pressed Pruitt about his past comments during a contentious hearing lasting more than two hours. It was Pruitt's first appearance before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works since his confirmation hearing nearly a year ago.
Republicans used the occasion to praise Pruitt's leadership at the agency.
"Administrator Pruitt has ... balanced the need to prioritize environmental protection with the desires of Americans to have thriving and economically sustainable communities," said committee Chairman John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming.
Democrats, meanwhile, peppered Pruitt with detailed questions about policy changes favoring fossil-fuel and chemical companies.
"EPA has moved to either repeal, reconsider or delay at least 25 environmental and public health protections in the last year alone," said 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."
Pruitt brushed off questions from reporters as he left the hearing, but minutes later EPA's press office issued a statement disavowing his 2016 comments on the radio.
"After meeting him, and now having the honor of working for him, it is abundantly clear that President Trump is the most consequential leader of our time," Pruitt said Tuesday, according to the agency's statement. "No one has done more to advance the rule of law than President Trump. The president has liberated our country from the political class and given America back to the people."
That's a far cry from Pruitt's impression of Trump two years ago.
"If Donald Trump is the nominee and eventually the president, he would take, I think unapologetic steps, to use executive power to confront Congress in a way that is truly unconstitutional," Pruitt told Campbell.
Pruiit 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,'" Pruitt 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."
Follow Associated Press environmental reporter Michael Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck