On Friday morning, President Donald Trump tweeted a thing:
Do you believe that the Fake News Media is pushing hard on a story that I am going to replace A.G. Jeff Sessions with EPA Chief Scott Pruitt, who is doing a great job but is TOTALLY under siege? Do people really believe this stuff? So much of the media is dishonest and corrupt!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 6, 2018
The president’s tweet alludes to a rumor that has been going around Washington for months now — the rumor being that Trump wants to oust Jeff Sessions from the Justice Department and replace him with Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.
The rumor was surprisingly given new life just as Pruitt has been dogged by a series of ethics scandals that have put his EPA job in jeopardy, in a report by CNN’s Pamela Brown and Kaitlan Collins. The pair wrote that Trump spoke of replacing Sessions with Pruitt as recently as this week, and is reluctant to fire Pruitt from the EPA because he sees him as a potential Sessions replacement.
If true, the implications would be enormous. Sessions is currently recused from oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation — but Pruitt wouldn’t be. So Attorney General Pruitt would theoretically be able to shut down the investigation or rein it in.
One would think it would be hard to get Pruitt confirmed by the Senate amid all these scandals. Yet in some versions of the rumor, that’s the point — Trump would use a little-known law to circumvent the confirmation process and install Pruitt in the job temporarily.
But there are real reasons to doubt this rumor too. For one, it appears to have been started, and kept alive, by Pruitt’s allies. For another, the ethics scandals have compromised Pruitt and would make his appointment by dubious and unusual means even more controversial than it already would have been.
It’s very clear that Trump wants Sessions gone
The background is that Trump has been positively furious with Sessions since he recused himself from handling the Russia investigation in March 2017. The probe has since been overseen by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Robert Mueller to take charge of it in May.
After that happened, Trump frequently berated Sessions, both privately and on Twitter for the world to see, in an apparent effort to get the attorney general to resign. The rationale seems to be: If Sessions left, Trump could appoint a new attorney general whom he trusts, who would not be recused, and who could theoretically take over supervision of the Russia probe from Rosenstein.
But Sessions hasn’t taken the bait and has defiantly refused to quit. Unless he changes his mind, that means that if Trump wants Sessions out, he has to fire him. And then he’d have to get a new attorney general confirmed. Confirmation would be no easy feat in the narrowly divided Senate, and would take some time — time during which, one would think, Rosenstein would remain in place supervising the Russia probe (unless Trump fires him too).
Yet there is one alternative here — albeit a legally dubious and sure-to-be-controversial one. In his administration, Trump has frequently used a law called the Federal Vacancies Reform Act to circumvent the usual line of succession in agencies. The law allows the president to temporarily fill an agency vacancy — so long as the new appointee was already confirmed by the Senate for a different position.
This is how Trump put Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney in charge of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and put a Defense Department official in charge of the Department of Veterans Affairs. (There is some legal ambiguity about whether Trump even can use the Vacancies Act to replace someone he fired rather than someone who resigned, but Trump decided to try to use it to replace fired VA Secretary David Shulkin anyway.)
Now, an appointment under the Vacancies Reform Act would be temporary — the appointee can only serve for 210 days. But a whole lot can happen in 210 days, at what seems to be a crucial period for Mueller’s investigation.
Which brings us to Scott Pruitt.
Pruitt’s allies have sent Trump the message that he’d be happy to step in for Sessions
It was in January of this year that the Pruitt-replacing-Sessions rumor first spilled into the media. But the emphasis here was that Pruitt wanted the job, not that Trump was thinking of giving it to him.
Politico’s Andrew Restuccia reported that Pruitt “has told friends and associates that he’s interested in becoming attorney general, according to three people familiar with the internal discussions.” (He added, “It’s unclear whether Pruitt would be on the shortlist for the position.”) Then, hours later, both Reuters and Bloomberg independently confirmed the report that Pruitt has been telling others he was interested in the attorney general job.
The sourcing and speedy corroborations from other outlets here suggest that Pruitt’s allies were deliberately putting out a message — to Trump. The message was that if Trump wanted to finally rid himself of Sessions, Pruitt would be positively eager to step in and replace him.
What Pruitt would do about the Mueller investigation is, of course, not explicitly stated in these reports, though the wink-wink implication seems to be that he’d handle it in a way Trump would prefer.
Pruitt could be appointed under the Vacancies Reform Act since he’s already been confirmed by the Senate to lead the EPA. He’s also a favorite of conservative movement leaders, who have had some qualms about pushing out Sessions.
Two months later, after Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and reporters tried to get ahead of what the next personnel change might be, Vanity Fair’s Gabe Sherman revived the Pruitt-for-Sessions rumor. Citing “two Republicans in regular contact with the White House,” Sherman wrote that “there have been talks” that Trump could replace Sessions with Pruitt.
Yet other reporters responded to this with some skepticism. Elaina Plott of the Atlantic (who co-wrote one of this week’s major Pruitt scoops) tweeted in response to Sherman’s story that Pruitt himself might be floating this.
This rumor has been circulating for months and EPA sources believe it was started by Pruitt himself. https://t.co/Wie0EZdKRk— Elaina Plott (@elainaplott) March 15, 2018
Fast-forward to this week. As Pruitt was being slammed by negative reports about his first-class flights, his lobbyist-owned condo, and his enormous raises for cronies, the Pruitt-for-Sessions rumor was revived again, in that report by CNN’s Pamela Brown and Kaitlan Collins.
The CNN team wrote that Trump “floated” replacing Sessions with Pruitt earlier this very week — attributing this information to a “source familiar with Trump’s thinking”:
“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 is hesitant to fire him because he likes entertaining the idea of replacing Sessions with Pruitt eventually and feels confident that he will continue to advance his agenda at the EPA in the meanwhile.
This is the story that appears to have spurred Trump’s angry, strange tweet.
Is Trump seriously considering this? Who knows!
Trump’s semi-denial that he’s thinking of replacing Sessions with Pruitt is far from rock-solid. He attributes it to the “Fake News Media,” says Pruitt is doing a “great job” but is “TOTALLY under siege,” and asks whether “people really believe this stuff.”
Yet Trump has a habit of calling things fake news that are in fact true. On March 11, he tweeted that he was “VERY happy” with his legal team and that a New York Times report that he’d add another lawyer was “false.” However, just eight days later, he announced he did in fact plan to hire another lawyer, Joseph diGenova, and a few days after that, his lead personal lawyer, John Dowd, exited the team. (DiGenova’s hiring fell through in the end.)
Furthermore, Trump has been known to float a great many possible personnel changes in conversations with friends and allies — a few of which end up happening, most of which don’t.
Still, many reporters have long been skeptical of the rumor, and Jonathan Swan, Axios’s plugged-in White House reporter, tweeted Friday morning that it didn’t make much sense to him, particularly because Trump has lately been complaining about the Pruitt scandal stories:
To be fair to Trump, I've spoken to people who've been either physically around him or speaking to him for the past week and they say this has never come up and given what he's been saying privately they don't believe he could've floated Pruitt for AG in past week as per reports. https://t.co/lPe6jmdXSd— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) April 6, 2018
Brown of CNN then defended her story and rebutted Swan:
Clearly you haven’t spoken with everyone who has spoken with Trump this week https://t.co/ZjRrBOeZjR— Pamela Brown (@PamelaBrownCNN) April 6, 2018
What all this means for Pruitt’s future at the EPA is also far from clear. Trump expressing confidence in an appointee certainly doesn’t mean he or she is safe. But installing an EPA administrator dogged by corruption scandals at the top of the Justice Department through legally dubious means, and expecting him to then freely cover up other scandals, would be ... a very bold move indeed.