It was the cough heard round the world, so annoying to the president he ordered the cougher, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, to leave the room in the middle of a televised interview. It was hard not to see the moment as the low point in a relationship that’s exhausted arguments about money and religion and has nothing left but squabbling over bodily noises.
But Mulvaney is still there, still “acting,” and still on thin ice. Trump needed the experience of the former congressman and director of the Office of Management and Budget to work with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to craft a budget and debt ceiling increase this week before Congress leaves for summer recess.
They did and got Trump’s approval, at least until he settles into a chair, or sits up in bed, to watch Fox and see what his most important advisers think, which may not be much. The proposal gives Democrats just about everything they want in domestic and discretionary spending in exchange for giving the president most of what he needs to keep the military at a level that allowed him to randomly boast to the Pakistan prime minister in the Oval Office Monday that he could wipe Afghanistan off the face of the earth in 10 days, if he so desired.
The deal breaks the bank with $320 billion in spending over projected levels and deficits as far as the eye can see. Of course, we’re told deficits don’t matter anymore and Trump is convinced he needs to spend like crazy to get reelected. Still, an increase in the deficit from Obama’s $11 trillion (and part of that was incurred to recover from the 2008 financial crisis) to what could be Trump’s $30 trillion by the end of his first term is an eye-popper. It’s enough for lapdog Sean Hannity to devote a segment to the moral consequences of mortgaging our future to China and the moral hazard of shaking hands with the devil. It will take Pelosi’s Democrats to get the deal across the finish line.
But depending on how Trump feels after Mueller time Wednesday and whether he’s run out of gas defaming the Squad, Trump may look at the situation and feel called to swoop in at the 11th hour and show what a real dealmaker can do. In 2017, he puffed out his chest and told Pelosi that if he didn’t get his way, he’d be happy to put his name on any government shutdown. He did, and thinks he won. Wait until he hears that his side caved, throwing out the conservative rule which requires one dollar less of spending for every dollar added to the debt ceiling. He’s a policy arsonist who would watch calmly as the country’s obligation to pay its obligations goes up in flames. Why all the hand-wringing? Trump doesn’t pay his debts and look where it got him. There have been shutdowns before. But a Trump Default would be a first. What a temptation.
There would be no deal for Trump to tear up if Mulvaney were still alive, politically speaking. The absence of his name on the Mnuchin-Pelosi deal is both a testament to the failure of the fiscal hawk to have much impact and to his shaky standing with the president. Trump’s so done with Mulvaney that he’d better check that his hard pass isn’t disabled while he’s off playing golf at Camp David— a privilege he overuses according to Trump, along with scrambling to get himself and his aides on Air Force One at every turn. All the while, he doesn’t do the job with the modicum of competence shown by Gen. John Kelly.
Trump’s been shopping around the idea of getting rid of the people he’s left in place for too long, humblebragging how he does all the work himself anyway. True enough, at least when the cameras are rolling, he’s his own press secretary, national security adviser, trade negotiator, and business development officer as he pressures the G-7 on filling his coffers by holding their next big meeting at his Doral resort in Florida.
It’s not only Mulvaney. Trump is just as irritated with John Bolton, who’s gotten out in front of him on Iraq, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who couldn’t help but scoff when NBC’s Andrea Mitchell delivered the news that the president had invited Vladimir Putin for a White House visit on stage at the Aspen Security Conference. Trump is ticked off everytime Coats contradicts his friend Putin by discussing how Russia interfered with our election.
Rumors of Wilbur Ross’s departure have persisted for a year but now seem imminent after the oommerce secretary was rebuked by the Supreme Court for “contriving” to add a citizenship question to the census. Ross doesn’t cough at meetings but he’s ridiculed inside for drooling, falling asleep, holding up our grandfather’s can of soup the day steel tariffs were announced, and wearing $600 handmade slippers around town. With a raft of questionable financial dealings, he draws attention to Trump’s long list. Ross is yet to get a clearance from the independent Office of Government Ethics, a failure he shares with Mnuchin who hasn’t divested a movie studio he quietly transferred to his wife instead. She moved to Los Angeles to run it.
That Mnuchin is safe for now is evidence of how depleted the White House is. He’s what passes for an adult.
One reason Mulvaney heads the list of those imperilled is because he’s staff. Getting rid of cabinet-level aides would set off a scramble to find confirmable replacements from an ever smaller pool of people willing to put their reputations on the line. What’s on tap now is an exchange of prisoners: Push Ross out and fill the post with Mulvaney, who sees the usually undesirable Commerce slot as his way out of Trump’s line of fire. A guy who wore a green eyeshade for years, he’ll claim more credit than he deserves for the deal if it makes it, throw some color to a few reporters about all the late nights of high stakes diplomacy, pizza boxes stacked high, zipping back and forth to the Capitol with the clock running out. As a former member of congress shifting to a backwater agency, Mulvaney would easily get confirmed and could clear his throat with impunity if he’s not in an office within shouting distance of the boss.
No one lasts forever with Trump—not a cabinet secretary, not a lawyer, not a wife. There’s no shame in leaving, unless it’s to begin a prison sentence. And there's honor for those who leave for a reason. Mulvaney recently played golf in the Hamptons with Gary Cohn, who departed after Charlottesville. It's too late for Mulvaney to stand on principle, but others, who say they are there because it would be so much worse without them, should rethink that excuse.
It’s a sorry explanation for staying. There’s no helping a man who says he can do “whatever” he wants and quotes Article 2 of the Constitution for support, as if the Founders revolted against King George to come to America to be ruled by their own monarch.
Consider announcing your departure sooner rather than later. Not for anything you did, but for everything he has.