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.
Though the President has, at times, floated several people a day for multiple positions in his administration that are already occupied, the proposition reveals just how frustrated Trump remains with Sessions because of his decision to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation more than a year ago, while signaling how confident he has remained in Pruitt despite a dizzying number of ethics issues.
But Trump on Thursday said he continues to support Pruitt.
Asked by reporters as he boarded Air Force One if he has confidence in the embattled EPA official, Trump said: “I do.”
Hours later, as he returned from an event in West Virginia, Trump said he wasn’t considering replacing Sessions with Pruitt.
“No. No. Scott’s doing a great job where he is,” Trump said.
As with anything in the Trump White House, the situation remains fluid and circumstances continue to change from moment to moment. Press secretary Sarah Sanders told CNN Thursday the White House does “not have any plans for personnel changes at this time.”
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. A source familiar with how things have unfolded said Kelly called Pruitt Tuesday morning to ask if there were other issues that could become public that he needed to know about. These feelings were further exacerbated after Pruitt did interviews with Fox News and Washington Examiner, which a senior administration official said only made matters worse.
White House aides warned officials at the EPA that having Pruitt sit for interviews this week could backfire and told them to rethink their plans, a person familiar with their conversation said.
The aides cautioned that the EPA that if Pruitt did poorly under questioning – particularly televised questioning – it would be the quickest way to lose Trump’s confidence. In fact, the President was not impressed with Pruitt’s performance.
But Pruitt has remained in Trump’s good graces for the most part, though a source who is familiar with the matter said the President’s confidence in him has faltered some in light of the ethics issues. However, 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.
Justice Department under fire
The suggestion of replacing Sessions with a scandal-ridden Pruitt comes as Trump continues to rage against both the attorney general and his deputy, Rod Rosenstein.
Trump chatters often about ousting both, multiple sources familiar with his thinking told CNN. But his advisers have repeatedly tried to thwart this by convincing him that doing so would be damaging in the midterms, given how popular Sessions is with conservatives.
These same advisers have also argued that firing Rosenstein could delay the completion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s obstruction of justice probe while creating unwanted headlines.
The President has especially focused his frustration on Rosenstein in recent weeks, often repeating his complaint that he is weak and not on his team, sources familiar with the President’s grievances have said. Rosenstein resurfaced as a source of the President’s wrath because of photo of him dining with Sessions and Solicitor General Noel Francisco at a popular Washington restaurant. Earlier that same day, Trump had criticized Sessions on Twitter.
Not backing down
Though Trump has laid off shaming Sessions publicly, sources who are familiar with their relationship caution that he hasn’t privately backed off his criticism. These people often wait for Trump’s hostility toward Sessions to resurface and several were stunned that he never tweeted about Sessions being on the cover of Time magazine.
The cover featured a shadowy photo of the former Alabama senator with the phrase “Nobody’s above the law” plastered across his right shoulder in all capital letters. Trump’s white-hot anger has been trained on Sessions for over a year now since the attorney general recused himself from overseeing the Russia investigation.
But Trump has repeatedly mused about firing many in his administration, so him discussing it doesn’t necessarily mean he will.
For now, Sessions’ allies feel that his job is safe, buoyed by the muted White House response after Sessions launched his first public rebuttal to Trump after the President criticized his “disgraceful” handling of Republican allegations of surveillance abuses at the department and FBI.
Overall, Trump has continued to vent about the Russia investigation, lamenting how “unfair” he believes the entire ordeal is.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.