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Politics

The Stephen Miller of Climate Policy

Russ Vought could jeopardize the next decade of climate science. But who is he?

Russ Vought and Donald Trump.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

It is my sincere belief that, as with many aspects of governance, thinking about climate policy bores former President Donald Trump. He is not without his hobbyhorses — wind turbines are ugly bird-killers; it’s freezing in New York, so where the hell is global warming? — but on the whole, I tend to agree with the assessment that he basically believes “nothing” on climate change. Trump simply isn’t all that interested. He prefers to let the others do the thinking for him.

This isn’t a knock on Trump, per se; part of leading a bureaucracy as big and as complicated as the United States government is surrounding yourself with people who can offload some of that thinking for you. But the crucial question then becomes: Who is doing that thinking?

The answer, to a large extent, is Russ Vought.

The name might not immediately ring a bell. Biographical details of the 48-year-old career bureaucrat can be hard to find (“a native of Trumbull, Connecticut,” “the youngest of seven children,” “a die-hard Yankees fan”), giving the impression that Vought came out of nowhere. In a sense, he did: For years, Vought dealt mainly with spreadsheets as he worked first as a budget staffer for Texas Republican Sen. Phil Gramm and Rep. Jeb Hensarling, then later for then-Rep. Mike Pence, and eventually the Heritage Foundation. It was Gramm, though, who gave Vought his outlook on the world: “If you do budget, you do everything.”

After a stint with the Trump transition team, Vought became deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget in 2018, and took over entirely in 2019. At OMB, he famously held up military aid to Ukraine in what became the subject of Trump’s first impeachment. Described as “ideological in the extreme,” “adversarial” with his colleagues, and having an “aggressive personal style” — incongruous, perhaps, with his somewhat nerdy, bespectacled appearance — Vought would reportedly go too far in proposed budget cuts sometimes even for his boss.

After Biden’s win in 2020, Vought launched the Center for American Restoration, a pro-Trump think tank with the mission of renewing “a consensus of America as a nation under God,” and has otherwise kept busy with appearances on conservative-friendly talk shows on One America News Network and Fox News. Steve Bannon has approvingly dubbed him “MAGA’s bulldog,” though he rarely speaks to the mainstream press. (I received a failed delivery message in response to an email to the address listed on the website for the Center for American Restoration; other attempts to contact Vought went unanswered.)

Vought is all but assured to take up a powerful position in a potential incoming Trump cabinet. He “trained up during the first Trump administration, and he is looking to apply those skills that he learned in a second,” said Alex Witt, the senior advisor for oil and gas at Climate Power, a strategic communications group that shared its research on Vought with me.

Vought may not be the most obvious architect for the project of dismantling climate progress, however. In Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation’s roadmap for the next Republican president, Vought authored the chapter on the Office of the President of the United States — hardly the most climate-y section, given that there are also chapters on reforming the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and the Department of the Interior. A flurry of new articles about Vought describe him as a Christian nationalist crusader preoccupied with fending off big government and orchestrating an expansion of presidential powers.

But just as Trump advisor Stephen Miller shaped far-right immigration policies from behind the scenes, Vought would be a hidden hand in a future administration dismantling climate progress. In his chapter in Project 2025, for example, Vought proposes moving the National Defense Strategy from under the purview of the Defense Department to the White House and its National Security Council — normal “expansion of presidential powers” stuff. But Vought goes even further, directing the NSC then to “rigorously review” the staff with an eye for “climate change … and other polarizing policies that weaken our armed force.”

Erin Sikorsky, the director of the Center for Climate and Security, told me that such a proposal indicates “a misunderstanding of how connected climate hazards are to the core duties of what the military is focused on.” It could also put the U.S. armed forces on the back foot in conflicts around the world if it’s followed through. As just one example, if the military isn’t engaging with its Indo-Pacific partners “and helping those countries build resilience to climate change, then China is more than happy to step in and address that,” Sikorsky warned. At home, NSC analyses of the domestic impacts of climate change will likely come to a halt, scuttling future coordination between the military and local governments after disasters and hampering mitigation efforts around the country.

The most significant blow on the climate front, however, would come from Vought’s proposal to reinstate Schedule F, a job classification that aims to convert at least 50,000 career civil servants to “at-will” political employees. (Trump used an executive order to implement Schedule F at the very end of his term; President Biden unimplemented it soon after taking office.) The employment classification ostensibly aims to make it easier to replace “rogue” or “woke” civil servants and would-be whistleblowers, a.k.a. “the deep state,” with party-line faithful. But in the words of Vought himself, Schedule F is also necessary because Biden’s “climate fanaticism will need a whole-of-government unwinding.”

The effects of such a decision, experts told me, could range from very bad to disastrous self-sabotage. Schedule F is “designed to be a tool to purge federal agencies of nonpartisan experts” and replace them with “partisan loyalists who would willingly follow any order without question, regardless of whether it was legal, constitutional, or the right thing to do for the people,” Joe Spielberger, the policy counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, an independent and nonpartisan watchdog group, told me. In practice, that might mean firing longtime civil servants perceived as not loyal enough, or even just “creating and perpetuating a climate of fear and intimidation where people are not able or willing to speak out when they see abuse of power and other corruption happening.”

Such a scenario is concerning for employees at agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who work on climate modeling. But the expertise of the U.S. civil service is broad and deep; Schedule F could impact everyone from the economists, lawyers, and engineers who work on something like the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards to the people who sit on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.

“Civil service positions are not classified as political appointees for a reason, which is so that staff, especially scientists, can do work that spans administrations because it is so fundamental to public health and welfare,” Chitra Kumar, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ managing director for climate and energy, told me in an email. The people made fireable under Schedule F, in other words, are the ones who actually know what is going on, whereas “elected officials come and go, often taking a year or more to understand the latest underlying science.”

Reimplementing and expanding Schedule F, however, is apparently one of Vought’s greatest ambitions. Earlier this year, the National Treasury Employees Union obtained documents via a Freedom of Information Act request that showed Vought’s intent to apply the status to much of OMB’s workforce in 2020. As justification for taking an implicit machete to his staff, Vought writes in Project 2025 that “it is the president’s agenda that should matter to the departments and agencies that operate under his constitutional authority,” but that instead, the U.S. civil service is “all too often … carrying out its own policy plans and preferences — or, worse yet, the policy plans and preferences of a radical, supposedly ‘woke’ faction of the country.”

Ann Carlson, the former acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a professor of environmental law at UCLA, strongly refutes Vought’s claim. For one thing, she told me that the great irony of the Schedule F proposal is that it would make it more difficult for the Trump administration to carry out its goals in the long run.

“Part of the problem for a conservative administration is, if you want to roll back policies that are in place, you need people who know how to do that,” Carlson pointed out. She also bristled at the suggestion that civil servants are unable to check their biases at the door: Carlson’s team at NHTSA helped put together the Biden administration’s rules to strengthen fuel economy standards, but it also worked to roll back the Obama administration’s regulations and replaced them with the SAFE standards under Trump. “I don’t actually know, for most of them, which one they preferred,” Carlson said.

Carlson wasn’t the only former political appointee I spoke with who fiercely defended the integrity of her staff. Ron Sanders, a three-year Trump appointee, so vehemently opposed Schedule F when it was briefly implemented in 2020 that he resigned as chairman of the Federal Salary Council. Today, he represents a group of Republican former national security officials who are imploring Congress to find a middle ground between the current status quo and the extreme political loyalty demanded by Schedule F.

When I read Sanders the part of Vought’s Project 2025 chapter that calls for weeding out the “radical, supposedly ‘woke’ faction of the country,” he told me that such thinking is “myopic.” “This is potentially a Republican administration coming in and finding ‘Democrats’ in place,” Sanders said. “You could say the same thing about the Biden administration, but they knew better — they knew that senior career officials appointed in the Trump administration are still politically neutral. It just happened to be a matter of timing.”

It likewise struck me as curious that Vought would push so hard for a policy that would not only hamstring the Trump administration but might also allow future Democratic presidents to carry out purges of perceived conservative government operatives.

The Biden administration has made moves to prevent Schedule F from potentially returning under a different president. Still, Spielberger from the Project on Government Oversight told me that short of a legislative fix by Congress, such actions will only delay reimplementation of the policy by “a matter of months” should Trump be reelected. The damage to climate science from four years of Schedule F, however, could be drastic.

“What we’re going to end up with is an executive branch that’s just uninformed,” Daniel Farber, the director of the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, stressed to me. Farber’s fear is not just that “a bunch of uninformed ideologues” would be running the show, but also that once government experts are kicked out, it will be difficult to replace them or entice them to return.

“Even after we go back to a Democratic president, you can’t wave a wand and get all those people back,” Farber said. In the first nine months of the Trump administration, for example, the EPA lost more than 700 employees — and that was due to poor morale and high turnover even without the threat of Schedule F.

Schedule F doesn’t just chase out climate-related experts from the government. It also accelerates the revolving door that allows anti-climate zealots actors in. Both the Heritage Foundation and Vought’s think tank, the Center for American Restoration, have taken money from Big Oil groups and executives. Trump has already made his own transactional assurances to the industry if it funds his return to the White House. Schedule F, meanwhile, would open up hundreds if not thousands of positions for unqualified political operatives — essentially creating a “spoils system” where the lines between government and private industry would blur more than they already do.

“Russ Vought is not the problem,” Witt, of Climate Power, told me. “The problem is Donald Trump: Donald and the GOP are bought out by Big Oil, and Vought and other bad actors are a cog in that machine.”

It’s a metaphor that works well for the federal government, too: What happens when you have 50,000 cogs, but the person you’ve deferred to run the machine has fired all the mechanics?

“You take out all that expertise, all the people who understand how the system works?” Carlson, the former NHTSA director, said. “Good luck to you.”

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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