Rumors have swirled since January that Pruitt might replace Sessions under the Vacancies Reform Act. (That’s the law that lets the president lateral a Senate-confirmed appointee into a vacant position requiring Senate confirmation at another agency, albeit only temporarily.) Some Sessions allies have grumbled to reporters that it’s Pruitt himself who started the rumor, to plant the seed in the president’s mind.
Surely, though, surely POTUS has placed that idea on the back-burner now that Pruitt’s being avalanched with bad press, including and especially on Fox News.
President Donald Trump floated replacing Attorney General Jeff Sessions with Scott Pruitt as recently as this week, even as the scandal-ridden head of the Environmental Protection Agency has faced a growing list of negative headlines, according to people close to the President.
“He was 100% still trying to protect Pruitt because Pruitt is his fill-in for Sessions,” one source familiar with Trump’s thinking told CNN…
Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly has not matched the President’s confidence in Pruitt, according to a source familiar with his thinking. He has advocated for firing him before the headlines get worse.
In any other administration, Pruitt’s stock would have been badly damaged by all the ethics questions raised over his condo deal and the dubious raises granted to two top EPA aides despite White House opposition. In Trump’s administration, his stock may have risen. Kelly wants Pruitt out because he’s viewing this as a matter of conventional politics: When a department head keeps delivering bad press, you find yourself another department head. That’s what they did with Tom Price at HHS and David Shulkin at the VA, right? But Pruitt’s position is different. He’s leading a traditionally left-wing agency that’s embroiled in the left-right culture war over climate change; he’s under attack by the media from all sides and has chosen to confront them in interviews rather than run, which Trump probably admires; he’s dutifully carried out Trump’s agenda at the EPA despite massive criticism from the press and the left, proving his loyalty; and he is in fact qualified as a former state AG to replace Sessions if Trump wants to go that route.
The reason I say his stock might have risen is because the weaker he gets from scandal, the more he owes to Trump for continuing to stand by him. If you were in the market for an Attorney General who might follow orders to fire Bob Mueller and shut down the Russiagate probe, who better than a guy who’s demonstrated that he doesn’t care what his critics think and is eternally grateful to Trump for not only not firing him but elevating him to the very top of the Justice Department? He’s the perfect man to go to war with Trump in a constitutional crisis over Mueller’s termination. Per CNN, Trump’s aides have reportedly been warning him away from firing Sessions by reminding him that the AG is popular on the right, but that’s nonsense. No one is popular on the right anymore unless they’re popular with Trump. Ask Steve Bannon. If Trump dropped the axe on Sessions, Fox News would go into overdrive attacking Sessions for his “weakness” in recusing himself on the Russia probe. And to the extent Sessions would be missed because he’s a true blue border hawk, no worries: Pruitt would be as much of a border hawk as the president wanted him to be as well.
So long as Pruitt is nominally on thin ice, though, his enemies are going to keep knifing him. And he has lots of them, as I noted the other day — Kelly, Team Sessions, and an ocean of green bureaucrats at the EPA who hate him for deregulating. The NYT just clubbed him with another lengthy ethics scoop late this afternoon citing “people who worked for or with the E.P.A. and have direct knowledge of the situation”:
At least five officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, four of them high-ranking, were reassigned or demoted, or requested new jobs in the past year after they raised concerns about the spending and management of the agency’s administrator, Scott Pruitt.
The concerns included unusually large spending on office furniture and first-class travel, as well as certain demands by Mr. Pruitt for security coverage, such as requests for a bulletproof vehicle and an expanded 20-person protective detail, according to people who worked for or with the E.P.A. and have direct knowledge of the situation…
[One] political appointee, Kevin Chmielewski, was placed on administrative leave without pay, according to two of the people with knowledge of the situation. Mr. Chmielewski was among the first employees of Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign, serving as a senior advance official. The two people, who are administration officials, said that Mr. Chmielewski flagged some of his concerns about Mr. Pruitt directly to the White House’s presidential personnel office.
Chmielewski is an important figure in the story because he’s not a liberal careerist at the EPA who was looking for an excuse to kneecap Pruitt. He’s an original Team Trump guy and he was allegedly punished by Pruitt for complaining that his spending habits were too swamp-y. A sixth official who complained about Pruitt’s spending and is now reportedly considering resigning came over to the EPA from Jim Inhofe’s office. These aren’t all Democratic hacks. Some of the proposed expenses flagged in the piece were for security upgrades that may seem excessive (a bulletproof desk and limo, a huge security detail) but which Pruitt might conceivably defend as necessary given his status as a hate object on the left. Some, though, seem petty and mainly about status-signaling: “Mr. Pruitt, who often ran late, wanted to use [flashing] lights and sirens [in his motorcade] to expedite local trips in Washington to the airport or to dinner, including at least one trip to Le Diplomate, a trendy French restaurant that he frequented.”
The question for Trump is simple: Will anyone who doesn’t already despise him and Pruitt care about this? Which swing voters who stuck with Trump through various news stories about Kushner’s financial issues and the Trump Hotel in D.C. making bank from foreign diplomats are going to bail now because Scott “Who?” Pruitt wanted to travel first-class? Kelly wants Pruitt out, I think, as a matter of very basic prudence, fearing that someone who’s generated this much agita already will surely generate more if he stays on. But Trump loves agita! It keeps things interesting. And Pruitt will be his boy if the president protects him. I don’t think he’s going anywhere, except maybe to the DOJ.
— The Lead CNN (@TheLeadCNN) April 5, 2018