WASHINGTON — Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has observers wondering if he could be the Goldilocks gatekeeper, the third-time/just-right executive’s executive who is guiding the often raucous Trump administration with a steady, invisible hand.
Some are even wondering if he just might lose the “acting” from his title soon.
Palace intrigue and leaks are down. President Donald Trump spent a whole Saturday off Twitter as he waited for special counsel Robert Mueller’s report to come to light. After Attorney General William Barr said Mueller found no collusion with Russian actors, Trump hopped back on Twitter, with upbeat slogans.
There’s a personal spark between the brash conservative Trump and the former Republican congressman and Office of Management and Budget director. Even before his December promotion, Mulvaney was the staffer Trump turned to in order to fill gaps in the administration. At one point, Mulvaney simultaneously served as budget office director and head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“POTUS loves him,” a top administration official told the Review-Journal on background, and Mulvaney’s “doing an absolutely terrific job, so I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t.”
First bump in the road
Early last week, however, there was a disturbance in the Force. The Department of Justice filed notice that it would support a federal judge’s ruling that President Barack Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional.
The timing was unfortunate. The story stepped on a Senate vote that forced Democrats to take a position on the progressive Green New Deal and had most of them casting an embarrassing “present” vote.
Worse, GOP leaders couldn’t believe that Trump had pivoted to an issue they believe cost them control of the House in November, and Democratic leaders thanked the heavens for an unexpected talking point at a critical time.
“This is a top issue for voters,” observed GOP strategist Alice Stewart. “It would be advisable for the administration to work with Congress to find viable solutions instead of going through the courts.”
Whose idea was it? Politico was first to report that Mulvaney had helped engineer the move, over the objections of Barr and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
It was the first bump from the corner office that has largely won approval among White House staffers.
“He’s gradually taken over the machinery of the White House without a lot of hullaboo,” a top staffer told the Review-Journal “He’s brought in very good people from OMB. The trains are running on time. The proper decisions are being made about who should be in what meeting, what the policy councils should be looking at or not looking at.”
Easing up a little
Another high-up administration official recalled how retired Gen. John Kelly was brought in to impose structure and discipline in a free-wheeling White House. Over time, and rightly or not, staffers saw the Kelly system as too rigid. Mulvaney has rocked the boat gently by allowing more people access to the Oval Office.
Also, this official noted, Mulvaney’s experience running for office and working in the House of Representatives should help a White House occupied by a non-politician better navigate its way through a Byzantine Capitol Hill.
As an early member of the House Freedom Caucus, Mulvaney doesn’t have to prove his fiscal-hawk credentials. Asked whether he would have voted for the budget deal Trump signed in February if he had still beem a House member, Mulvaney told CBS’ “Face the Nation”: “Well, probably not.”
Mulvaney moved from heading the Office of Management and Budget to the chief of staff’s office in December as the longest-ever partial government shutdown began, which meant he entered the fray deeply familiar with all things budgetary as the White House was fully focused on the shutdown.
Trump is in charge
Rather than leaving reporters with a sense that he is managing Trump — as Trump’s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, did from the start — or that he disapproves of Trump’s style — as Kelly did toward the end of his tenure — Mulvaney has been careful to signal that Trump is in charge of his own White House. Mulvaney refers to the president as “the boss.”
Kelly made sure everyone knew that his perch in the West Wing virtually caged him in “the least enjoyable job” he had ever had, whereas Mulvaney leaves colleagues believing “that he’s really enjoying it.”
When Trump appointed Mulvaney on Dec. 14, wags speculated that Mulvaney was “acting” because Trump wanted to be able to return Mulvaney to the budget office, where acting Director Russell Vought is keeping the seat warm, without appearing to have made a hasty choice.
I am pleased to announce that Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management & Budget, will be named Acting White House Chief of Staff, replacing General John Kelly, who has served our Country with distinction. Mick has done an outstanding job while in the Administration….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 14, 2018
Others wondered if perhaps Mulvaney wanted to keep the door open a crack in the event he needed a low-drama exit from a pressure-cooker job.
Asked if the “acting” part of Mulvaney’s title might go, press secretary Sarah Sanders responded that there is “certainly a lot of possibility there.”
Unique in history
According to Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, who has been tracking turnover in the Trump White House for the Brookings Institution, Mulvaney is the only “acting” chief of staff in the history of the job.
Another record, Tenpas said, is that Trump is the first president to hire a third chief of staff in his second year. And that was no easy accomplishment.
Trump was on the verge of offering the job to Nick Ayers, then-chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, but Ayers turned it down so he could return to his family in Georgia. A week later, Trump announced on Twitter that Mulvaney was his man.
Trump has fired “far more people than any other president,” Tenpas noted. As of Monday, she calculated that 66 percent of Trump’s A-team hires had either quit, resigned under pressure or been promoted.
So what are the odds Mulvaney doesn’t stay on the job through 2020? “High,” she answered.
Before Trump won the White House, Mulvaney was not exactly a fan. He called the GOP nominee’s call for a border wall “simplistic” as well as “absurd and almost childish.”
Now, the White House is “a pretty calm place,” the top staffer told the Review-Journal. “If you’re in the room, you see how he interacts with the president. They get along. They like each other.”
Contact Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.