Trump says has confidence in Scott Pruitt as White House probes his ethics

WASHINGTON, April 5 (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said on Thursday he has confidence in Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, even as the White House investigates whether a condo rental by Pruitt was ethical.

Trump, when asked on his way to a trip to West Virginia if he still has confidence in Pruitt, said, "I do."

Pruitt is facing a White House probe for renting a room in a high-end Washington neighborhood for $50 a night in a town house co-owned by the wife of energy industry lobbyist Steven Hart.

Hart lobbies for companies regulated by the EPA.

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Deputy White House spokesman Hogan Gidley told Fox News that Trump demands the highest ethics from his Cabinet. "In the meantime we’re looking into this because ... the president wants that level of accountability for everyone who works for him," Gidley said.

In late March, the EPA's ethics office cleared Pruitt of accepting an illegal gift from a lobbyist with the condo lease, saying a number of other rooms nearby are available for rent for a similar or lower price.

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But the office issued a memo, dated April 4 and seen by Reuters, that the earlier review did not consider whether Pruitt had violated other ethics rules with the lease.

Kevin Minoli, a top ethics official in the EPA's Office of General Counsel, said in the memo that the review did not address other portions of the federal ethics regulations, such as a rule requiring officials to avoid behavior that could result in their impartiality being questioned.

"It is important to note that the federal ethics regulations regarding impartiality apply regardless of whether something involves receiving a prohibited gift," he wrote.

In a separate statement about the memo, Minoli said it explains the ethical issues beyond the scope of the original review.

The impartiality rule requires government officials avoid doing things that could create an "appearance of favoritism in government decision-making," according to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics.

Minoli also said in the memo he did not have access to enough information to determine whether Pruitt's actual use of the space was consistent with the lease.

CNN first reported on the memo late on Wednesday.

Pruitt, a vocal doubter of mainstream climate change science, is also facing criticism for his frequent first-class air travel, and his spending on costly items in his office, including a soundproof telephone booth.

Trump's support for Pruitt, which he also voiced on Tuesday, comes even as U.S. lawmakers, including two fellow Republicans, called for his resignation over the ethics questions.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner and Jeff Mason Writing by Richard Valdmanis Editing by Bill Trott and Frances Kerry)