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Trump’s Chief of Staff Is Having a Great Time

Steve Snowden / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Here’s the thing, Mick Mulvaney says, sitting in his West Wing office on Wednesday afternoon: He knows that Donald Trump’s administration doesn’t always make good on conservative ideals. He knows that they’re “spending a bunch of money on stuff we’re not supposed to,” and that all the excess doesn’t comport well with his own reputation as a fiscal hawk and Tea Party darling during his congressional days, before he became acting White House chief of staff.

At ease as he pages through work papers, Mulvaney seems the opposite of John Kelly, the retired Marine Corps general painted as a conflicted soul who despised running the White House. “When I got here, morale wasn’t what it needed to be,” Mulvaney told us. “I don’t think I’m telling any secrets—John hated the job. And let everybody know.” He cheerfully extolled his relationship with Trump, joking that he’d gained 10 pounds since becoming chief. (“I eat more with the president now,” he said. “He eats hamburgers all the time.”)

But the spending hasn’t escaped his notice—nor that of his old conservative colleagues in the House. One of them had actually “accused me of ‘losing,’” Mulvaney recalled, after the White House signed a massive spending package. The colleague, Mark Meadows, “said, ‘It sounds like my friend Mick Mulvaney is not winning on some of the fiscal issues down at the White House.’” But Mulvaney had a retort that underscores how he’s come to define success.
“I told him, ‘Yeah, but at least I’m losing at the very highest levels.’”

Indeed, losing has its consolations when you’re at the peak of political power. By any number of measures, the White House seems in a state of siege. Congressional Democrats are bombarding the administration with subpoenas, setting up a standoff with a president who has no wish to comply. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report lays out in vivid detail how Trump might have obstructed justice. No policy decision coming from the West Wing ever seems settled, with Trump reversing course at a moment’s notice. “We always say, ‘This is the worst,’” one White House official told us. “But this is really the worst.”

But walk into Mulvaney’s office, and he’ll tell you everything is fine, even fun! As he sees it, it’s not his place to second-guess the president’s instincts. His job is to “make the president successful and help the president get reelected,” Mulvaney said—and in the meantime, enjoy the perks: unfettered access to the leader of the free world, influence in key policy decisions, and an office with a fireplace down the hall from the Oval. Mulvaney, of course, has an incentive to say all is terrific, all the time, in the White House, in order to appease the boss. Still, he comes across as a guy relishing the ride for as long as it will last. For him, reports that the White House is steeped in more controversies than usual are baseless. From where he sits, legs crossed, jacketless, life in the West Wing is totally serene—and the West Wing becoming a place where Trump has more latitude than ever is exactly the way Mulvaney wants it.

When Trump tapped him for the chief-of-staff gig in December, Mulvaney had already been leading the Office of Management and Budget for almost two years, a job he continues to hold. At first, it looked as if Mulvaney, the president’s third chief of staff in less than two years, wouldn’t last long. His title was acting chief, suggesting that he was merely auditioning for the role while Trump hunted for a permanent replacement.

But congressional and White House sources, who like others we interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk freely, suggested that Mulvaney actually prefers the qualifier. “He’s always looking to the next thing, and feels ‘acting’ allows him to more fluidly take that next thing when it comes up,” one senior House GOP aide said. Some believe that Mulvaney is interested in succeeding Wilbur Ross as the secretary of Commerce, but for now, he’s staying put. “He could fire any of us tomorrow,” Mulvaney said. “So what difference does it make if you’re ‘acting’ or ‘permanent’?”

Mulvaney’s first order of business as chief of staff was to loosen the strictures that Kelly had put in place. The retired four-star general had tried in vain to bring some discipline to a freewheeling White House, instituting tighter controls on who was able to see Trump and what information people were able to give him. Even the president’s family members—daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner—were supposed to be subordinate to Kelly in a top-down structure reminiscent of the military culture he knew well.

Mulvaney was blunt in his assessment of Kelly’s leadership: It was an experiment gone bad. “I just think it’s very hard to cultivate a healthy work environment when somebody near the top lets everybody know that they hate their job,” Mulvaney said. He argued that his “family business” background had allowed him “unique insights into how this place should be managed, in a different way than somebody who’s spent 40 years in the Marines.”

Mulvaney began allowing more and more aides to participate in senior-staff meetings—the White House official said that people are now “hanging from the ceiling”—and he freed up access to the president, making clear that he had no interest in reining in Ivanka Trump and Kushner. “If I wanted to, I couldn’t,” Mulvaney said. “But I don’t want to.” Mulvaney said he arrives to work at about 7 a.m., while the president is still upstairs in the residence, making phone calls. “He doesn’t come down until about 11,” he said.

The chief is “allowing Trump to be Trump,” says Corey Lewandowski, the former Trump campaign manager and a confidant of the president.

Mulvaney’s allies say there is value to his more casual approach to the job, because it’s made the West Wing a happier place to work. “He has reenergized the position,” says Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser. “Mick is high energy, loves what he’s doing, and is having fun. And for the rest of us, that’s a tremendous thing to see.”

But his detractors see a chief of staff who’s overseeing ever more chaos—and whose nontraditional approach has rendered the position almost meaningless. The Mueller report revealed a number of White House crises averted by top aides who refused to carry out demands from Trump that pushed the boundaries of law and good sense. Many of those aides are now long gone, and in their stead are more pliant figures like Mulvaney who are loath to police the president. Lest Trump act through whim and grievance, the chief of staff must set up a rational system for devising, executing, and communicating White House policy, Mulvaney’s critics say. They simply don’t see that arrangement in place. “My big, overarching complaint is that [Mulvaney] has not helped Trump learn to govern,” says Chris Whipple, the author of The Gatekeepers, a book about past chiefs of staff. (Mulvaney told us he wants to meet with Whipple, who has previously criticized him in the press: “I figure, if the guy was gonna bad-mouth me, he might want to come in and talk to me.”)

Some White House and congressional aides suggested that Mulvaney may not be inclined to confront Trump, because he’s watched others lose their job after doing just that. As one former administration official put it: “Mick has seen what has happened to people that stand up to the president on a regular basis—they don’t last long.” But Mulvaney dismissed the notion that Trump’s current aides are hopelessly obsequious—or that when they push back, they are trying to sabotage him. “We do say no to the president. He wants us to say no when we believe the answer is no—that does not mean we’re being disobedient or we’re somehow undermining the president. Many times the exact opposite is true.” If he pushes back on a Trump idea, “have I disobeyed the president? Or have I just done my job?”

Often, Mulvaney said, the president is not telling aides “to do something illegal”; he’s “just giving me ideas on what his priorities are and what he wants to accomplish.” He brushes aside accusations that White House policy making is haphazard—the “decision-making process works extraordinarily well.” He cited Trump’s reversal on Special Olympics funding as an example of something the media had blown out of proportion. “That was $17 million out of a $1.3 trillion budget,” he said. “For the president to change his mind on that, that’s perfectly acceptable.”

A recent New York Times story was regarded in some circles as an instance of Mulvaney’s disinterest in speaking truth to Trump: It alleged that Mulvaney stopped Kirstjen Nielsen, the former secretary of Homeland Security, from bringing possible Russian interference in the 2020 election to the president’s attention. In our interview, Mulvaney was emphatic that the story wasn’t “accurate,” that he has no trouble raising such issues with Trump—“up to and including foreign interference in elections in 2016 and 2020.”

And Mulvaney is confident that the president has a winning message ahead of the 2020 election. “The economy is still really, really good, and I’ve told him many, many times that, you know, people vote their pocketbooks,” he told us. “What does Clinton say? ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I still think that’s the case.

“So I think that’s our A argument,” he added. “And ‘We’re not socialists’ would be our B argument.”

In keeping with his sanguine approach to the job, Mulvaney was quick to wave off any of the administration’s perceived shortcomings, arguing that they aren’t necessarily the fault of the president. Take federal spending, an issue Mulvaney himself railed against when he was in Congress, representing South Carolina. The debt has ballooned in the past two years, and Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, estimates that Trump has signed into law nearly $2.5 trillion in borrowing. But Mulvaney insisted that’s the Republican Party’s fault, not the president’s—lawmakers, he said, are voting for bills that they themselves admit spend way too much money. “Tell me how the president is supposed to be fiscally conservative against that backdrop,” Mulvaney said. “So yeah, we spend too much money. But the president by himself can’t change that.”

It’s also not the president’s fault if nothing gets done in the next two years—it’s Congress’s fault if it cannot pass West Wing priorities, like a renegotiated trade alliance with the U.S., Mexico, and Canada, or an infrastructure package. “The ball really is in the Democrats’ court in whether or not they’re able to do deals with him, or if they’re so sort of locked up over the fact that they can’t help the president in any way,” Mulvaney said. If Congress can’t manage to pass a trade deal or an infrastructure bill, he admitted, “it could be a slow couple of years.”

That is, except for the congressional investigations Democrats are waging against the White House, examining both Russian interference in the last election and allegations of obstruction of justice against the president. Mulvaney said the White House can likely expect more subpoenas, which he said it will fight “to the very end.” “There are valid separation-of-power issues here that we will absolutely defend. Congress is not a law-enforcement agency,” he added. “If they want to bring impeachment proceedings, they can. We can’t stop them.” Referencing the Justice Department’s conclusion that Trump did not obstruct justice, Mulvaney argued that Congress is “not designed—they’re not constitutionally enabled—to second-guess the attorney general on the enforcement of the law. That’s a complete overstep on behalf of the legislative branch of government.”

If any of this seems like a tall order in the months to come—staving off congressional inquiries, gearing up for reelection, keeping restive White House staffers happy—Mulvaney certainly doesn’t show it. With the breeze coming through the French doors that lead to his private patio, he explained that “I love the job—I’m having a great time.” He recalled a Camp David retreat at the beginning of January, where he told his staff, “Look, with the exception of Jared and Ivanka, this is probably the greatest job any of us is every gonna have, so we might as well enjoy it.”

At the very least, Mulvaney has notched one accomplishment that eluded his predecessors. Believe it or not, he beamed, “I don’t think I’ve fired anybody since I’ve been here!”


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