David A. Graham: Trump's orders are routinely disregarded by his staff
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.”
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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.”