A few weeks back, a Trump-administration official told me that the White House’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, would soon be “acting” no more. Mulvaney had won the job for good, and Donald Trump was about to make him permanent chief, this person said. One week ago, another person close to the president came to me with a different tip: Trump had seen enough, and Mulvaney’s firing was imminent.
Neither whisper has proved true. Mulvaney is still in place, though Trump refuses to lift a modifier on a job title—acting—that all but screams, This person’s grip on the job is shaky.
But here’s a bigger question: Outside of Mulvaney’s friends and family, does anyone need to care about the chief of staff’s fate? Since assuming the presidency, Trump has cycled through senior aides at a faster clip than any president since Ronald Reagan, converting the office into a solo operation driven by impulse and chatter on cable news. Turnover at the top ranks of the West Wing stands at 80 percent. A cynic might ask, What’s one more casualty?
Over the past few weeks, according to White House sources, Trump has been quizzing confidants about whether Mulvaney is tough enough as the Democratic-controlled House barrels toward an impeachment vote. The same person close to Trump, who asked to remain anonymous to speak candidly about personnel issues, noted that Mulvaney, who took the job in December, might not be battle-tested. For most of the time Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigated Trump’s conduct as part of the Russia investigation, Mulvaney was in a peripheral role as budget director and acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “He wasn’t in the foxhole in the last go-round,” this person told me. The White House did not make Mulvaney available for comment for this article.
Having blown through different managerial models, Trump has settled on a freewheeling system that puts him at the center of a revolving cast of senior aides who fall in and out of favor. It’s reminiscent of a family business, which makes sense, because that’s the model Trump has known his entire adult life.
Mulvaney’s uncertain status says something about Trump’s mind-set. In the face of this latest peril, and nearly 1,000 days into his tenure, he still hasn’t settled on how the West Wing should run. Confronting the impeachment threat is a West Wing staff that Trump has largely neutered. Aides have been left guessing about who’s coming and going, much less what they’re supposed to say about accusations that Trump pressured Ukraine to ferret out dirt on his potential 2020 rival Joe Biden. In the two weeks since the whistle-blower complaint was released to the public, the White House still hasn’t articulated a clear legal, political, or communications strategy needed to withstand impeachment and keep Trump’s Republican support from eroding.
Inside the West Wing, Mulvaney is one of several top aides, including Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who are leading the response to the House impeachment probe. From his office just down the hall from the Oval, Mulvaney has been holding multiple meetings a day dedicated to the fallout from the whistle-blower report accusing Trump of abuse of office, a White House official told me on the condition of anonymity, because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.
It’s not unusual for Trump to question associates about how aides are performing, and it doesn’t always mean he wants a particular person gone. Over the past couple of weeks, Trump has also mused that ousting Mulvaney at this moment of his presidency might make matters worse. The president is wary of being seen as shaking up his senior staff with no assurance the next chief will be an improvement, the person close to Trump said.
For his part, Mulvaney doesn’t seem worried—about any of it. In staff meetings, Mulvaney has said that impeachment is likely to boomerang and result in a decisive defeat for Democrats in the 2020 election, the White House official told me. As for Trump questioning whether Mulvaney is up to the task, the official added: “That’s not a leading indicator at all. [Mulvaney] could not be happier about the challenges of the job, and is pleased with the role. His feeling is the president is similarly happy with him. The relationship is as strong as it’s ever been.”
There’s a certain irony in Trump questioning whether Mulvaney is the right person to see him through the crisis. Trump promoted Mulvaney partly because he didn’t want a disciplinarian in the mold of the previous chief, retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, who left his White House post last December.
Trump has made it clear that he prefers to operate in a looser West Wing guided by his own political instincts. Now he seems surprised to learn that his chief of staff might not be sufficiently hard-nosed. “It’s rich that Trump might be asking if Mulvaney is the right guy for this moment,” Chris Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers, a book about White House chiefs of staff, told me. “The question is, where was he [Mulvaney] in the last moment, when Donald Trump got on the phone and conducted a Mafia-style shakedown of a country in exchange for political dirt on an opponent?”
That gets at another question: Could anyone have intervened to stop Trump from seeking help from Ukraine? I asked the person close to the president about how Trump, already facing an impeachment inquiry for soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 race, raised the ante last week by inviting China to investigate the Biden family. (China wants no part of it.)
“You play the hand you’re dealt,” the person said with a sigh.
Working beneath Mulvaney is a West Wing staff whose cues are largely coming from Trump’s tweets and what the president tells reporters above the whoosh of helicopter blades on the South Lawn. Republican congressional aides tell me that the White House communications team can’t advance a clear-cut message about the Ukraine scandal for fear that Trump will trample on anything they put out. No White House aides went on the Sunday talk shows this past weekend to defend the president—perhaps to protect their own reputations.
Don’t expect coherence and consistency in Trump’s own message. To date, his statements have been a grab bag of self-pitying denials and middle-school taunts. Trump has said that congressional Democrats have embarked on another “witch hunt” (the same thing he said about the Mueller probe). He’s called impeachment a “coup.” He’s said his conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “perfect,” while also suggesting that any imperfections were the fault of his energy secretary, Rick Perry.
Cipollone wrote an eight-page letter to House Democrats, released by the White House yesterday, objecting to the impeachment probe and refusing to cooperate, in part because Trump’s rights aren’t being protected. Democrats weren’t giving Trump the right to cross-examine witnesses or have his lawyers present, he wrote. But those are largely legalistic arguments that might not sway public opinion.
“No one is empowered to speak for [Trump] but him,” a Republican congressional aide told me, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “People are afraid to say too much because it might be irrelevant in the next two minutes. Any messaging product that the White House puts out is as useful as a lighthouse in Kansas.”
Is it working? Trump’s poll numbers are largely the same, with Gallup showing him at 40 percent approval, though there are warning signs that the public is seeing impeachment as a more palatable option. Recent polling shows that since July, Republican support for an impeachment inquiry has jumped 21 percentage points.
As chief of staff, part of Mulvaney’s job is overseeing a strategy and message that staves off Republican defections. Yet Trump seems bent on doing that himself. He’s long seen himself as his own chief strategist, press spokesman, and, yes, chief of staff. That’s a bargain senior aides can’t escape. And it helps explain how Mulvaney got the job in the first place—after Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, turned Trump down.
When my colleague Elaina Plott and I interviewed Mulvaney back in the spring, he told us: “The president runs the place. The president is the boss. Everybody here knows that. No one here is under the misconception that he or she might be the president of the United States. There’s only one president of the United States, and he’s in charge. And I think everybody gets that.”
No organizational structure Trump has embraced has succeeded. His first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, was a former Republican National Committee chairman with strong ties to GOP operatives, donors, and lawmakers around the country. Priebus was a friend of the House speaker at the time, the Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. All that seemed to bode well for a successful tenure. But Priebus was gone in six months, and would later concede that he was merely “chief of stuff.” Kelly lasted longer, though he and Trump were barely speaking at the end of Kelly’s time on the job. He might have been sacked sooner had he not had the cachet that a four-star general carries, White House aides have told me.
Then there’s Mulvaney. “It’s not as freewheeling perhaps as it was under Reince, but it’s certainly not as structured as it was under General Kelly,” Mulvaney told us of his executive style last spring. “I think we found a happy medium.”
So said the acting chief of staff, now approaching his one-year anniversary on the job.