Trump Finds Someone to Say Yes to Chief of Staff
(Bloomberg) -- For President Donald Trump, Mick Mulvaney’s best ability may have been availability.
Trump settled on his budget director to lead his fractious staff after a week of failed courtships and embarrassing rejections that seemed to underscore the undesirability of working for an erratic president.
Trump first said he had as many as a dozen candidates, then five. Ultimately he turned to Mulvaney, the administration’s jack-of-all trades, after former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie joined Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Nick Ayers in rejecting the job.
Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina, had previously run the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in an acting capacity while also heading the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.
Aides said Trump likes the fast-talking budget chief, his devotion to fiscal responsibility, and his Capitol Hill experience. The latter may prove especially useful with tough funding battles and investigations ahead in a House of Representatives under Democratic control.
Appointing Mulvaney as acting chief of staff buys Trump time to complete what became a hasty and chaotic search to replace John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, after the president announced his exit last weekend without a successor in place.
Mulvaney will take the helm of a West Wing dogged by intensifying questions about the president’s legal and political exposure heading into his 2020 re-election campaign. Just this week, Trump faced a string of setbacks that threatened to once again bring turmoil to his White House.
“For the record, there were MANY people who wanted to be the White House Chief of Staff. Mick M will do a GREAT job!” Trump tweeted Friday evening.
Trump’s original choice, Ayers, told the president he’d only take the job for a few months in an interim capacity. Trump had hoped to convince the young political operative to make a two-year commitment, but talks broke down, leaving the president without a plan B.
Representative Mark Meadows, the North Carolina congressman and leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, wanted the post. But he was ultimately deemed too important for House Republicans, who next month are about to enter the minority for the first time in nearly a decade.
Trump’s Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he was happy with his current position. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said he wanted to remain focused on ongoing negotiations with China. And White House aides, including Kellyanne Conway and Jared Kushner, didn’t actively pursue the post.
Christie was briefly the frontrunner after meeting with Trump on Thursday evening. But by Friday afternoon the former governor had released a statement withdrawing from consideration, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. Christie, who had previously been ousted as the head of Trump’s transition, may have opted out because of his upcoming book that’s said to be critical of those in the president’s orbit.
Potential candidates were well aware of Kelly’s experience attempting to bring order to the West Wing, only to find a president unwilling to avoid comments and tweets that welcomed a constant drumbeat of controversy.
Even Mulvaney appeared to need convincing. Just days ago, he didn’t want the job, people familiar with his thinking said.
Trump doesn’t plan to continue interviewing for a permanent chief of staff in the near term, even though Mulvaney is serving on an acting basis, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Mulvaney, who as a congressman was one of the architects of a 2013 government shutdown in a confrontation with the Obama administration, is already playing a crucial role in negotiations to avoid another lapse in government funding at the end of next week.
While Mulvaney’s candor has impressed Trump in meetings and briefings, it has also generated some controversy. During a meeting with bankers, Mulvaney said that he didn’t speak to lobbyists who didn’t donate to his campaign when he was a lawmaker.
Mulvaney has also come under scrutiny for his role in the administration’s decision against relocating the FBI headquarters to suburban Washington. Critics of the decision have questioned whether Trump opted against the deal -- which would have turned over the current downtown bureau headquarters to private developers -- because he didn’t want to see see construction of a hotel that could compete with Trump International on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Mulvaney was elected to Congress in the Tea Party wave of 2010 and quickly established himself as a thorn in the side of Republican leaders, urging a debt ceiling confrontation in 2011 that rattled markets and led to a U.S. credit downgrade.
Two years later, he provoked the 16-day government shutdown over Obamacare. He co-founded the Freedom Caucus -- a group of three dozen lawmakers who ultimately brought down Republican Speaker John Boehner, who they said compromised too much with Democrats.
Mulvaney championed deep cuts to federal spending, but so far those outlined in the two Trump administration budget proposals he authored have not come to pass. Trump bucked his advice and struck deals with Democrats to increase both defense and domestic spending. Earlier this month, the president sided with the Pentagon against an attempt by Mulvaney to rein in defense spending.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement on Friday night that Mulvaney “will not resign from the Office Of Management and Budget, but will spend all of his time devoted to his role as the acting chief of staff for the president.” She added that his deputy, Russell Vought, would take over the “day to day operations and run OMB.”
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