Over the course of about 40 minutes on Thursday, President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, made two startling admissions: that U.S. military aid to Ukrainian had been contingent on an investigation into a debunked conspiracy theory about interference in the 2016 election; and that politics was influencing his boss’ foreign policy.
And if all but admitting the president engaged in quid pro quo wasn’t enough, he then proceeded to act like it was the most natural thing in the world… until a few hours later, when he pretended it never happened at all.
It was, in short, a remarkable afternoon for the acting chief of staff, whose standing in the White House seems a bit more precarious by the day as he himself gets drawn further into impeachment proceedings threatening the president.
Those who know the man say they’re not worried about him in the slightest.
“When you're in the middle of it, trying to make decisions—I think Mick's doing a good job of trying to serve the country and serve the president,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), an ally of Trump’s, a day before Mulvaney’s press conference. “I do know there's a lot of things that get said that aren't backed up with facts. I'm waiting for the facts to come out before I jump to any conclusions.”
But others are not so kind when assessing the role Mulvaney is now playing, arguing that he finds himself in over his head as he tries to guide the White House through turbulent political waters.
“He is a smart guy, a very smart guy, but he’s only about 70 percent as smart as he thinks he is,” said Republican strategist Terry Sullivan, who has known Mulvaney since the acting chief of staff’s days in the South Carolina State Senate. “There’s only one person in that entire White House that has a bigger ego than he does, but it’s not by much.”
The trickiness of Mulvaney’s task—and the difficulty he is having handling it—was on full display Thursday. It was about 20 minutes into the briefing when he was asked whether he was directly involved in withholding funds from Ukraine. After riffing about the president’s dislike of foreign aid, belief the U.S. shoulders too much of it in proportion to others and that the country is corrupt anyway, Mulvaney touched on the 2016 race.
“Did he also mention to me in the past that the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely,” he said. “No question about that. But that’s it. That’s why we held up the money.”
After pillorying former State Department adviser Michael McKinley, who reportedly testified he’d left the administration because he was “disturbed by the implication that foreign governments were being approached to procure negative information on political opponents,” Mulvaney went in for the kill.
“I have news for everybody. Get over it,” he advised. “There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy... Elections have consequences and foreign policy is going to change from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.”
As wild—damning, even—as the admissions may have seemed, Mulvaney actually had the intention of bringing the temperature down, with hopes of clearing the air after his name had cropped up in press reports implicating him in the Ukraine-related scandal. He wanted to “take allegations head-on, and show he wasn’t going into hiding,” one White House official said.
“Might as well own it,” the official added.
And own it he did—but only for part of the day.
Hours after the briefing, Mulvaney tried to backtrack, saying in a statement released by the White House press office: “Let me be clear: there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election.” He also claimed that “once again, the media has decided to misconstrue my comments to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump.”
By that point, however, real damage had been done. Mulvaney’s earlier round of comments had left some close White House allies utterly perplexed and questioning his fitness for the role.
“What is Mulvaney even talking about?” Sean Hannity, a Fox News host and prominent outside adviser to Trump, said on his radio show on Thursday. “I just think he's dumb, I really do. I don't even think he knows what he's talking about. That's my take on it.”
And the bad reviews came from within the Trump administration itself. Not long after Mulvaney left the briefing room, a senior Department of Justice official began telling reporters that DOJ wasn’t aware that Ukraine military aid and the Justice Department's probe into the potential origins of the Russia investigation were linked. “If the White House was withholding aid in regards to the cooperation with any investigation at the Department of Justice, that is news to us,” the official told Fox News.
One of Trump’s personal attorneys Jay Sekulow released a brief statement that, while not directly criticizing Mulvaney or his briefing, unequivocally stated that the president’s outside lawyers had nothing to do with it.
To a certain degree, Mulvaney’s performance—and subsequent mop-up—was just another illustration of the remarkable tensions that all top White House aides have come to confront. And yet, Thursday’s drama provided a unique instance of how Trump has transformed his own party and endangered those within it.
Four years ago, Mulvaney was a fiscal conservative stalwart in Congress and a public Trump critic. During his 2016 congressional re-election campaign, he told an audience in his South Carolina district in the wake of the release of the Access Hollywood tape that he was supporting then-candidate Trump, “despite the fact that I think he’s a terrible human being.”
But, like many Republicans before and after him, Mulvaney warmed to the president when it became clear that there were opportunities for advancement for those willing to ignore the unsavory elements of Trump. First, he served as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (which he gutted), then he became the director of the Office of Management and Budget (a title he still, technically, holds), and now he’s acting chief of staff.
When he first assumed his current post, Mulvaney seemed determined to avoid the drama that had consumed his predecessors. He opted for a less combative approach than prior chief of staff, John Kelly, who frequently butted heads with the president on a range of decisions and rankled Trump with his attempts to corral and restrict access to the impulsive president. He kept a low profile too. Indeed, his Thursday appearance at the White House briefing room was his first during his tenure as acting chief of staff.
“It’s pretty clear to me he’s reading between the lines and he’s trying to execute the president’s policies across the board and not pushing back on what the president’s trying to do,” said one Republican national security expert. “You could see Gen. Kelly likely pushing back on this kind of request.”
But being a Trump foot soldier willing to say and do anything to please the commander in chief came with a cost. And in Mulvaney’s case it was both the sacrificing of long-held principles (the deficit and debt has ballooned under his stewardship) and, increasingly, proximity to political scandal.
On Tuesday, former Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs Fiona Hill testified to the House Intelligence Committee that former National Security Adviser John Bolton was concerned about actions by Mulvaney, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, and European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland that circumvented the normal procedures and diplomatic channels, according to a report in The New York Times.
Thinking it might have legal ramifications, Bolton instructed Hill to alert the chief lawyer for the National Security Council, remarking: “I am not part of whatever drug deal [Sondland and Rudy] and Mulvaney are cooking up.”
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers who worked with Mulvaney—and like him—have watched with a mixture of concern and confusion that their former colleague may have gotten in over his head even before his appearance in the briefing room. There is chatter about whether his “Let Trump Be Trump” approach to the job helped create an environment in which the Ukraine shenanigans were allowed to flourish. And though they are revelling in exposing corruption at the heart of the Trump administration, even Democrats are feeling a bit torn about watching their former colleague get swept away in it all.
“I have worried from day one about Mick working for Trump,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY), who calls Mulvaney a friend. “Because I believe in the title of that book—that everything Trump touches dies. And I’m just hoping he escapes with his integrity and his career intact. Mick’s a very good guy, a smart guy. I just think it’s unfortunate that he took that responsibility on.”