WASHINGTON – On the day after he made more news than any chief of staff in recent White House history – much less an acting one —Mick Mulvaney went about his business as usual.
He finalized plans for hosting Republican members of Congress this weekend at Camp David, a form of outreach he has regu larly pursued and a bit of traditional Washington socializing that is not President Trump’s forte. He was booked as a guest on Fox News’s Sunday morning talk show, despite a desire by some conservatives that he stop talking. And he gave a speech to a Republican group in the Raleigh, N.C., area.
Mulvaney’s job has been anything but normal since the news conference on Thursday at which he seemingly undermined the Trump administration’s strategy for avoiding impeachment by acknowledging that Mr. Trump had sought a quid pro quo for providing Ukraine with American aid. In the chaotic aftermath, the president’s Republican allies are questioning Mr. Mulvaney’s savvy and intelligence even as the Trump campaign is defiantly turning one of his lines from the news conference into a T-shirt.
As he approaches his anniversary in the White House, Mr. Mulvaney, 52, a former South Carolina congressman and Trump budget director, finds himself in a strange netherworld.
The word “acting” is still conspicuously stuck to his title, even though Mr. Trump could remove it at any time. His relationship with the president runs hot and cold, depending on the day, though never quite cold enough for Mr. Trump to fire him.That is in part because it’s unclear who might be willing to take a job that Mr. Trump struggled to fill when it last came open.
But Thursday’s briefing in the White House press room was a prize winner in “the annals of disastrous appearances by White House chiefs of staff, ”according to Christopher Whipple, author of“ The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency. ”
Mr. Mulvaney’s ostensible purpose was to announce that Mr. Trump had chosen his own golf resort in Doral, Fla., As the site for next year Group of 7 summit meeting of world leaders –a controversy of its own, but one that Mr. Mulvaney appeared prepared to take heat for.
“I get the criticisms,” he told reporters. “But, no, there’s no issue here on him profiting from this in any way, shape, or form.”
Then the questions quickly turned from whether Mr. Trump was using the presidency to enrich himself to why his administration recently froze $ 391million in congressionally allocated military aid to Ukraine and whether it was an effort to coerce its government into pursuing political investigations sought by Mr. Trump.
Peppered by skeptical questions from reporters, Mulvaney was remarkably nonchalant in conceding a central component of the Democratic case for impeachment: that the aid was delayed, in part, because of Mr. Trump’s belief in an unfounded conspiracy theory that a Democratic National Committee email server hacked in 2016 may be hidden in Ukraine and could hold data showing that Russia did not interfere in that year election.
Mr. Mulvaney dismissed questions about whether it was appropriate to delay the aid, saying, “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
“Get over it,” he declared.
It did not take long for Mr. Mulvaney to release a statement trying to take back his admission that indeed the release of aid to Ukraine had been linked to Mr. Trump’s demand for an inquiry. White House aides privately expressed shock that Mr. Mulvaney said what he said. Several of Mr. Trump’s advisers – concerned the president didn’t seem to process what had happened – told him there was a problem.
Mr. Trump, though, grew unhappy only when he saw coverage of the news conference, according to people close to him. Even then, he was not as angry as many aides have seen him before.
Asked about Mr. Mulvaney’s comments, Mr. Trump said he hadn’t watched them and appeared unbothered. “I think he clarified it,” Trump said.
The extended Trump apparatus seemed to embrace parts of the Mulvaney message. By midday, a black T-shirt with “Get Over It” in white letters was available from the Trump 2020 campaign for $ 30.
But despite the effort to project confidence, Republicans in Congress and at least one prominent conservative media figure expressed dismay at Mr. Mulvaney’s words, which contradicted weeks of White House messaging.
Representative Francis Rooney, Republican of Florida, told reporters on Friday that he was “shocked that he said that stuff” and that Mr. Mulvaney’s remarks could not be walked back so simply.
“It’s not an Etch a Sketch,” easily erased, he said, miming the
“I want to get the facts and do the right thing,” he told reporters, “because I’ll be looking at my children a lot longer than I’m looking at anybody in this building. ”
Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio and a former colleague of Mr. Mulvaney in the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, accused the media of taking his friend out of context, then said Mr. Mulvaney’s remarks had been incorrect.
“We know from the call transcript itself, there was no linkage,” he said, repeating the talking point about Mr. Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian leader that was damaged badly by Mr. Mulvaney. “There was no quid pro quo.”
Trump’s most reliable allies, the Fox News host Sean Hannity, assailed Mr. Mulvaney on his radio show on Thursday as “idiotic” and “dumb,” saying he “didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Mr. Whipple said that Mr. Mulvaney’s defiant defense of the president told a larger story about how the president’s staff had largely come to enable, rather than check, his impulses.
) “I think the senior advisers in the White House, led by Mulvaney, have become a cult,” he said. “To the extent there’s any discernible defense or strategy here, it seems to be, ‘There’s no defense – so let’s pretend it’s normal.’”
He added, “We found out that they think if Trump does it, it’s normal – get over it.”
The underlying tether that Mr. Trump is using to keep Mr. Trump Mulvaney close, some advisers and former aides say, is a recognition that his scorched-earth farewells to other senior officials have left a number of them willing to tell secrets about what they saw while they served him.
Within the White House, Mr. Mulvaney has a number of allies among his subordinates. But at a more senior level, he has repeatedly been at odds with the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, who came into his job not long after Mr. Mulvaney stepped into the chief of staff role.
Mr. Mulvaney and Mr. Mulvaney Cipollone had an extensive disagreement the day the White House released the transcript of Mr. Trump’s call on July 25 with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Since then, the counsel’s office staff has repeatedly been frustrated by Mr.
And like everyone else, Mr. Mulvaney, seeing him as an impediment to helping the president. Mulvaney has the shadow of Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, to remind him that there are few permanent fixtures in this White House besides Mr. Trump’s family members.
Kushner has told White House officials that he supports Mr. Kushner Mulvaney, but he has also told associates that he has fielded complaints about him over time. Mr. Kushner was said to be frustrated by Mr. Kushner Mulvaney’s podium gaffe.
Joe Lockhart, who served as press secretary for President Bill Clinton and faced his own daily barrage of impeachment questions, said of Mr. Mulvaney, “It was malpractice to send him out there, given his lack of experience, lack of skills and a clear lack of preparation.”
But, Mr. Lockhart added: “One thing I do give him credit for, he covered himself. He was very clear that anything he did on Ukraine was at the direction of the president. ”
Michael Crowley reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.
Michael Crowley is a White House correspondent, covering President Trump’s foreign policy . He joined The Times in 2019 from Politico, where he was the White House and national security editor, and a foreign affairs correspondent. He has also worked for Time, The New Republic and The Boston Globe.
Maggie Haberman is a White House correspondent. She joined The Times in 2015 as a campaign correspondent and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for reporting on Donald Trump’s advisers and their connections to Russia. Previously, she worked at Politico, The New York Post and The New York Daily News.@maggieNYT