Even by the bizarre standards of conduct that prevail in Donald Trump’s administration, Scott Pruitt’s continued job security is a mystery. Pruitt has suffered a career-ending scandal at a rate of nearly one a day, for weeks on end, many of them utterly humiliating, and with no end in sight. The embarrassment brings no particular substantive benefit, since if Pruitt stepped down, he would be replaced by a deputy who is equally willing and able to let fossil-fuel companies run the agency.
So why is Pruitt still there? He has one source of unique value: He could help Trump quash the Mueller investigation. And that, according to a new report, is Pruitt’s own plan, too.
Trump’s biggest impediment is Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has infuriated Trump by failing to prosecute Trump’s enemies and, especially, by recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Trump would love to fire Sessions, but would never be able to get Senate confirmation for the kind of lickspittle he wants in the role.
The straightest shot he has is by using something called the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. This 1998 law allows Trump to fill a vacated Cabinet position with any person who has been confirmed by the Senate for another position. So, if Sessions were to leave — how he leaves could matter a lot, but put that aside for the moment — Trump could install, say, Pruitt in his place, since the Senate already confirmed Pruitt for EPA administrator. And Pruitt could serve for up to 210 days without Senate confirmation — long enough to fire Mueller and all his staff, or at least seriously derail their work.
If Trump wants to use the Vacancies Act maneuver, he could pick any Senate-confirmed figure in his administration. But Pruitt is in some ways the ideal candidate. He’s a lawyer, deeply loyal to Trump, and, most importantly, is not hung up on following ethical rules or norms. Pruitt’s ability to withstand constant revelations of unethical and/or illegal behavior is a strong sign of his willingness to carry out Trump’s wildly unethical goal of turning the Justice Department into his personal rent-a-cops.
A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported, “The two speak frequently, and the president enjoys discussing his negative view of Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, with the embattled E.P.A. leader.” Today, CNN reports that Pruitt personally pitched Trump on this idea. “In an Oval Office conversation with Trump, Pruitt offered to temporarily replace Sessions for 210 days under the Vacancies Reform Act, telling the President he would return to Oklahoma afterward to run for office.”
CNN doesn’t say that Pruitt specifically promised to quash Mueller. But this is Trump’s highest-order goal, and the primary source of his fury with Sessions. There is almost no doubt that Pruitt is promising to make the Russia investigation go away.
Trump hasn’t pulled the trigger on this plan yet. CNN’s reporting indicates that aides “shot down the proposal.” But aides have shot down lots of Trump proposals that haven’t stayed shot — starting trade wars, cracking down on immigrant children, having a personal meeting with Vladimir Putin. The story also notes that “White House officials continue to be perplexed by Pruitt’s good standing with the President.” Maybe they shouldn’t be perplexed.