Mul­vaney makes it his job to en­cour­age rather than re­strain Trump’s in­stincts

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman

WASH­ING­TON – When Pres­i­dent Trump met with his em­bat­tled home­land se­cu­rity sec­re­tary Sun­day to force her out af­ter months of stormy erup­tions over im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, the only other per­son in the room was Mick Mul­vaney, who made no ef­fort to head off the fi­nal con­fronta­tion and in­stead helped draft the let­ter of res­ig­na­tion.

When Trump de­cided to get rid of his Se­cret Ser­vice di­rec­tor, of­fi­cials said, Mul­vaney de­liv­ered the mes­sage rather than try to talk the pres­i­dent out of it. When Trump con­sid­ered whether to ask a court to in­val­i­date the Af­ford­able Care Act de­spite op­po­si­tion from his own top le­gal ad­vis­ers, Mul­vaney’s re­sponse: Fol­low your gut.

In his first 100 days as the pres­i­dent’s act­ing chief of staff, Mul­vaney has as­sumed a cen­tral role in Trump’s cir­cle but one markedly dif­fer­ent than the pre­vi­ous two oc­cu­pants of his cor­ner of­fice. For the first time since tak­ing of­fice, Trump has a chief of staff who has made it his job to en­cour­age rather than re­strain the pres­i­dent’s con­ser­va­tive in­stincts – to let Trump be Trump, in ef­fect.

A for­mer con­gress­man from South Carolina and a founder of the Tea Party cau­cus, Mul­vaney is not a prod­uct of the Repub­li­can es­tab­lish­ment like Reince Priebus, the first chief of staff, or the mil­i­tary hi­er­ar­chy, like John F. Kelly, the sec­ond. In­stead, he ar­rived at the White House from the revo­lu­tion­ary wing of the con­ser­va­tive move­ment, whose goal even be­fore Trump en­tered pol­i­tics was to blow up what it con­sid­ered a cor­rupt and lib­eral Wash­ing­ton.

“I don’t think that he sees the role of the chief of staff to al­ter the per­son­al­ity of the per­son he works for,” said for­mer Rep. Trey Gowdy, a friend and fel­low South Carolina Repub­li­can who golfed with the pres­i­dent and Mul­vaney last month. “They have a good re­la­tion­ship, but the pres­i­dent’s the boss.”

Some out­siders see the cas­cade of hard-line pol­icy ven­tures, un­ortho­dox ap­point­ments and high-level purges of re­cent days as a sign of Mul­vaney’s ex­pand­ing in­flu­ence, as­sum­ing that he is push­ing Trump to the right. But in­sid­ers call that a mis­con­cep­tion, in­sist­ing that Mul­vaney at most is push­ing on an open door and oth­er­wise is merely lib­er­at­ing Trump to pur­sue the cour­ses he prefers.

The les­son Mul­vaney took from the un­happy ex­pe­ri­ences of Priebus and Kelly – both of whom were ul­ti­mately cast out on Twit­ter – was that Trump is not in­ter­ested in be­ing man­aged by aides who think they know bet­ter, and so he has tried to build a process that he thinks bet­ter serves the pres­i­dent.

To some Repub­li­cans who had be­come re­signed to an un­govern­able White House, Mul­vaney has been a wel­come pres­ence, one who has tamped down some of the tribal ri­val­ries that played out in vi­cious form through clan­des­tine dis­clo­sures to the news me­dia.

“I think he’s be­come an as­set be­cause he’s learned how to keep the Trump train run­ning,” said Scott Reed, the top po­lit­i­cal ad­viser to the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce. “A com­bi­na­tion of man­ag­ing the staff, rais­ing the morale and lim­it­ing the leak­ing has made him a suc­cess­ful Trump chief of staff.”

But to his crit­ics, in­clud­ing some Repub­li­cans, Mul­vaney’s ap­proach has un­leashed the pres­i­dent in dan­ger­ous ways. Af­ter forc­ing a five-week gov­ern­ment shut­down at the start of the year, Trump in re­cent days threat­ened to close the na­tion’s south­ern bor­der, se­lected un­con­ven­tional nom­i­nees for the Fed­eral Re­serve de­spite sig­nif­i­cant vet­ting is­sues and be­gan clear­ing out the top ranks of the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity.

In a speech on the Se­nate floor Tues­day, Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Demo­cratic leader, lamented the “chaos” in the White House stem­ming from the pres­i­dent’s “whim­si­cal, er­ratic” be­hav­ior.

“I hope that the pres­i­dent or some of the peo­ple around him will re­al­ize that his ad­min­is­tra­tion is far from a fine-tuned ma­chine,” he said. “It’s a slow-mo­tion dis­as­ter ma­chine that the Amer­i­can peo­ple see in ac­tion ev­ery day.”

Even some Repub­li­cans on Capi­tol Hill hold Mul­vaney in low re­gard, par­tic­u­larly se­na­tors who view him as a for­mer con­gress­man with lit­tle deal­mak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and scant in­cli­na­tion to learn.

Dur­ing tense ne­go­ti­a­tions amid the gov­ern­ment shut­down ear­lier this year, Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala. and Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee chair­man, com­plained bit­terly about Mul­vaney’s pen­chant for undoing weeks of bi­par­ti­san work with a quick com­ment to Trump in the Oval Of­fice. Shelby told Sen. Pa­trick J. Leahy of Ver­mont, the com­mit­tee’s top Demo­crat, that Mul­vaney was “the most dan­ger­ous man” in Wash­ing­ton, ac­cord­ing to three peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the ex­change.

Shelby has not re­peated that in pub­lic, but when a re­porter on Capi­tol Hill asked him about Mul­vaney last week, the sen­a­tor tartly in­ter­rupted to of­fer a cor­rec­tion.

“You mean the act­ing chief of staff?” he said be­fore walk­ing away.

Trump has yet to for­mally re­move the “act­ing” be­fore the ti­tle, but af­ter more than three months, Mul­vaney shrugs that off, telling oth­ers that ev­ery­one who works for the pres­i­dent serves at his plea­sure and there­fore is act­ing.

In­deed, Mul­vaney is op­er­at­ing not as a tem­po­rary care­taker, but as some­one who ex­pects to stay for a while, bring­ing to the West Wing a clutch of aides from the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get, where he served as di­rec­tor. He has en­gaged in team-build­ing ex­er­cises like re­treats at Camp David, most re­cently last week to dis­cuss ef­forts to cre­ate a re­place­ment for the Af­ford­able Care Act.

He is gen­er­ally liked by the staff, which re­coiled at Kelly’s mil­i­tary style. Kelly made clear that he hated the job, mut­ter­ing out loud when he left on many evenings that he might not re­turn the next day. By con­trast, Mul­vaney tells peo­ple that he loves the job, an at­ti­tude that al­lies said has im­proved morale.

Even some Democrats praised Mul­vaney for reach­ing out. Rep. John Yar­muth, D-Ky., chair­man of the House Bud­get Com­mit­tee, said his re­la­tions with Mul­vaney were “ex­cel­lent” and noted that he was in­vited to Camp David for a trust-build­ing visit.

“Mick’s never go­ing to re­solve Trump’s er­ratic be­hav­ior,” Yar­muth said. “He’s never go­ing to be able to do any­thing about that. But over­all, I think he’s been a much more ef­fec­tive chief than Kelly has.”

Still, Mul­vaney has been crit­i­cized in­ter­nally, by col­leagues un­will­ing to be iden­ti­fied, for cre­at­ing his own fief. And he has been faulted for ap­peal­ing to Trump’s na­tivist in­stincts and de­sire to cater to his hard-core po­lit­i­cal base.

Trump does not share Mul­vaney’s spe­cial pas­sion for hawk­ish fis­cal poli­cies but signed off on a largely sym­bolic bud­get that in­cor­po­rated some of those pri­or­i­ties, only to over­rule his aides when pro­posed fund­ing cuts to Spe­cial Olympics were pub­li­cized.

“The big­gest prob­lem I sense with Mul­vaney is be­cause of his own pol­i­tics, he tends to push Trump fur­ther to the right than even Trump might want to go,” said Leon E. Panetta, who held the job un­der Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton. “As chief of staff, your greater re­spon­si­bil­ity is to present to the pres­i­dent the op­tions for what he should de­cide.”

Mul­vaney has told peo­ple that he makes a point of do­ing just that, en­sur­ing that the pres­i­dent hears dif­fer­ent points of view. Dur­ing the de­lib­er­a­tions over the Af­ford­able Care Act, al­lies noted that Mul­vaney made sure that Trump heard ob­jec­tions lodged by the Jus­tice Depart­ment and White House coun­sel.

While Mul­vaney has kept the essence of Kelly’s pol­icy-de­vel­op­ment pro­ce­dure, he makes a point of con­sult­ing with Trump ear­lier in the process to get his di­rec­tion. Although he was known as a fire­brand in the House who stood up to Repub­li­can lead­ers, he is def­er­en­tial to Trump, call­ing him “boss,” while mak­ing a point of spend­ing off hours on the golf course with him.

Peo­ple close to the pres­i­dent say Mul­vaney gets too much credit – or blame – for Trump’s right­ward turn on pol­icy. Trump’s in­stinct is to ap­peal to core sup­port­ers who he fears will leave him, and he is the one who wants to demon­strate to them that he is con­tin­u­ing a hard line on im­mi­gra­tion.

David Bossie, pres­i­dent of the con­ser­va­tive group Ci­ti­zens United and a for­mer deputy cam­paign man­ager for Trump, said the pres­i­dent was ad­just­ing to a chang­ing po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment.

“The pres­i­dent is re­spond­ing to that new world or­der and that’s the mind­set,” Bossie said. “He is un­der siege by con­gres­sional Democrats, and that is how he’s op­er­at­ing – un­der siege.”

And Mul­vaney is in the trench next to him.

Getty Im­ages

In his first 100 days as the pres­i­dent’s act­ing chief of staff, Mick Mul­vaney has as­sumed a cen­tral role in Trump’s cir­cle – one that al­lows Trump to be Trump.

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