WASHINGTON — When President Donald 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 resignation letter.
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 leader of the Tea Party movement, 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 cast out unceremoniously via Twitter or comments to reporters — 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. (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) 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 deal-making experience and scant inclination to learn. In recent days, some criticized the expanding homeland security purge while others complained that Mulvaney does not meet with them enough.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.) 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.” (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) 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.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.) 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. (BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.) In the West Wing, Mulvaney is seen as someone who knows when to fight battles, as opposed to Kelly, who often found himself at odds with Trump’s adult children and informal advisers. He does not try to manage access to the president as Kelly did. Rather than fight Trump’s natural desire to meet and talk with a variety of people, Mulvaney has taken a decentralized approach that he calls chief of staff by committee, empowering different advisers to provide the president their guidance.
It is a style most associated with Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter, each of whom resisted having a strong chief of staff at first, preferring what was called a “hub and spoke” model in which many people had access to the Oval Office. Both eventually abandoned the approach, concluding that it did not work, and Mulvaney eschews the hub-and-spoke term to avoid associations with those failed experiments.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.) 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.