Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, has told friends and associates that he’s interested in becoming attorney general, according to three people familiar with the internal discussions.
With rumors swirling that Jeff Sessions could depart the administration and two members of the House Freedom Caucus calling on the former Alabama senator to resign, Pruitt is quietly positioning himself as a possible candidate for the job.
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“Pruitt is very interested,” a person close to him said. “He has expressed that on a number of occasions.”
It’s unclear whether Pruitt would be on the shortlist for the position, but people close to the president said Trump has grown to like him. Pruitt has emerged as the face of Trump’s deregulatory agenda, taking steps to overturn former President Barack Obama’s climate change regulations. He was also a leading advocate for pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change.
Pruitt has developed a reputation in Washington as one of the most ambitious members of Trump’s Cabinet, and people close to him have long suspected that he harbors bigger aspirations in politics, perhaps as governor or senator. Two people close to him also said he has toyed with the possibility of running for president someday.
The EPA denied that Pruitt is eyeing the attorney general position.
“No, this is not true,” agency spokesman Jahan Wilcox said in a statement. “From creating regulatory certainty to cleaning up toxic superfund sites, Administrator Pruitt is solely focused on implementing President Trump’s agenda to protect the environment.”
Pruitt’s allies stressed that he is happy at the EPA and, in the words of one person who has talked to him, “feels he’s doing nation-changing work.”
Before joining the Trump administration in February, Pruitt served as Oklahoma’s attorney general, and he was a state senator before that.
A prominent Washington attorney advising one member of the administration said choosing Pruitt to replace Sessions would make sense because, as a member of the Cabinet who has already been confirmed by the Senate, Pruitt could serve in an acting capacity until he is formally nominated.
But a Pruitt nomination for attorney general would face fierce resistance from Democrats, who have criticized his tenure at the EPA, arguing that he is too closely tied to the oil industry and has weakened crucial environmental protections.
Sessions’ relationship with Trump has ebbed and flowed in recent months. It reached a low point over the summer, when Trump called Sessions out on Twitter, publicly wondering why the attorney general wasn’t investigating Hillary Clinton — and people close to the president said his relationship with Sessions has never fully recovered.
The president has also complained about Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
“Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” Trump said in a July interview with The New York Times.
The Times published an article on Thursday that said a top White House lawyer tried to persuade Sessions not to recuse himself. The Times also reported that a Sessions aide asked a congressional staffer whether he had damaging information about the director of the FBI at the time, James Comey.
Trump fired Comey in May, a move that is under scrutiny by special counsel Robert Mueller as he investigates whether the president obstructed justice.
It’s unclear how the Times article will influence Sessions’ status in the White House. A White House spokeswoman and several senior administration officials did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.
In an op-ed published on Thursday, Republican Reps. Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan, the chairman and former chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, appeared to channel Trump’s frustrations. The lawmakers called on Sessions to step down, railing against intelligence leaks to the press.
“Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the Russia investigation, but it would appear he has no control at all of the premier law enforcement agency in the world,” the lawmakers wrote. “It is time for Sessions to start managing in a spirit of transparency to bring all of this improper behavior to light and stop further violations.
“If Sessions can’t address this issue immediately, then we have one final question needing an answer: When is it time for a new attorney general? Sadly, it seems the answer is now.”
Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.