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Embattled Pruitt, Sessions lead cheers for Trump at conservative summit in Denver

June 8, 2018 Updated: June 9, 2018 at 6:58 am
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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions makes a point during his speech at the Western Conservative Summit Friday, June 8, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER - Controversial EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt spoke to a friendly crowd Friday night at the Western Conservative Summit, touting President Donald Trump's accomplishments in reversing the environmental regulations imposed by the previous administration.

We are living in transformational times, Pruitt told the audience. "God places responsibility on us to advance liberty and freedom" just as it was at the founding of the country.

The EPA is doing business differently, Pruitt explained. That means undoing the Waters of the USA rules set up by the Obama administration, which he said was an effort to centralize power, not to protect water quality. "We're going to create a new definition" of waters, Pruitt said, one based on private property ownership.

Pruitt also promoted the Trump administration's views on the Clean Power Plan, which he said declared war on fossil fuels. No agency of the federal government should ever declare war on a sector of the nation's economy, he said. No agency should declare winners and losers and favor one energy source over another. "We can be about regulatory reform and growing jobs and the economy" at the same time.

The changes have helped save business $1 billion and produced a better outcome for the environment, Pruitt insisted. Air quality is 10 percent better under this administration, and the EPA is making great progress in cleaning up the environment, such as for Superfund sites.

Pruitt also pointed to Trump's decision to take the United States out of the Paris Climate accords, which he said took tremendous courage. "We won't agree to an agreement that puts us at a disadvantage to the rest of the world," with other countries such as China and India allowed to wait until 2030 to reduce their CO2 emissions. "We are leading the world in that regard and have nothing to be apologetic about."

This president is about putting power back in the hands of people in the states, Pruitt concluded. "I am so thankful we have a president who is a man of courage and results." Pruitt admitted he knew taking on the role at EPA would be "noisy and competitive" especially in an agency that he called "a bastion of liberalism...My greatest response is to keep going" and let people know that transformational change is happening.

Earlier Friday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions opened the two-day gathering of conservatives with praise for the Trump administration's rollback of Obama's signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act, and championing of religious liberty.

Sessions has been Trump's whipping boy since the former U.S. senator from Alabama recused himself from overseeing the more than yearlong special counsel investigation of Russian meddling into the 2016 election.

But Sessions ignored the Russia controversy that has plagued him and Trump's administration. Instead, he boasted of his decision the day before to withdraw the Justice Department from defending Obamacare in court, specifically the provisions that require people to have health insurance and guarantee access to health insurance regardless of preexisting medical conditions.

"It's a rare step, but one I felt was necessary, when it comes to the law," Sessions said.

Sessions also praised the Jack Phillips, the Lakewood baker who refused to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012 on religious grounds. In a narrow ruling Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court backed Phillips, although its 7-2 decision was based primarily on the process, rather than religion.

"He stood for his beliefs, almost alone at times, it seemed, and under great pressure," Sessions said.

Turning to immigration, Sessions noted the ongoing crackdown on Mexican drug gangs, Trump's continued efforts to build a wall separating the U.S. and Mexico and criticized so-called sanctuary cities, such as Denver and Boulder, which refuse to cooperate with federal agents on immigration enforcement.

"In the Trump administration, we know whose side we're on; we're on the side of the police, law and order and the American people. And we back the blue, not the criminals," he said, pausing long for applause.

Sessions left the spotlight in Washington for the warm limelight in Denver for the ninth annual summit. The ticketed event started Friday morning and continues Saturday at the Colorado Convention Center.

The summit, put on by the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, typically attracts conservative superstars, political insiders and a galaxy of right-wing media figures. Embattled Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt was scheduled to speak Friday night.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Yuma, spoke Friday morning, a day after introducing legislation in Washington to help protect states that have legalized marijuana, despite federal law that still deems it illegal.

The Centennial Institute is one of the leading critics of legalized pot in Colorado.

Radio host Craig Silverman, who introduced Gardner at the summit, led off by talking about his "double date" with liberal U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on Friday, when they made a joint media appearance in Washington promoting the bill.

Gardner made no mention of the pot bill, however. He commended Republicans in Washington for putting Colorado judge Neil Gorsuch on the U.S. Supreme Court, "the strong leadership of President Trump," as well as cutting taxes and regulations. "And we ain't done yet," he said to applause.

He pivoted to the November election and the GOP's favorite foil, the hostile media.

"We have to keep the Senate," Gardner said. "The media knows this. The media is afraid of this, and that's why they want us to fail."

He said the most dangerous thing in the 2016 election was presidential candidate's Bernie Sanders' "normalization of socialism." He didn't mention Russian meddling in the election.

The conservative summit each year courts controversy, or at least thumbs its nose at liberals. Besides Trump administration officials, gun rights are on this year's agenda.

Parkland, Fla., school shooting survivor Kyle Kashuv is scheduled to address the conservatives Friday night, and National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch is the featured attraction Saturday night in the Mile High Ballroom.

Indivisible Front Range Resistance, Never Again Colorado, student-led groups and other activists announced Friday they will protest outside the summit on Saturday.

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