“Mick is lying low, but everyone is lying low,” a former senior administration official said. “White House aides are hoping the president deals with this himself, and everyone is trying to keep their heads down.”
“Popping your head up will only lead to bad things,” this person said. “It’s uncommon for a chief to do this as well, but Mick seems to be in the same shelter-in-place posture everyone is in.”
Much of the White House staff is paralyzed by Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, as Trump keeps changing the administration’s strategy on the fly and directs it from his own reactive Twitter feed. The president and his lawyers have taken control of the scorched-earth impeachment fight as advisers, White House staff and outside allies keep offering advice to fight Democrats and stonewall their investigation. Like Mulvaney, many of the aides know it’s best to follow the president’s lead in these high-risk situations.
“The central question here is: Where is Mick Mulvaney?” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency.” “He’s abdicated the most important duty as White House chief of staff, and that is telling the president what he doesn’t want to hear. And the most dramatic result of his ‘Let Trump be Trump’ posture is the Ukraine scandal. He should have thrown his body in front of that phone call.”
Several current and former White House aides insist Mulvaney’s job is safe, partly because the president would not be able to find anyone to assume the chief of staff duties amid impeachment proceedings and partly because Mulvaney is too enmeshed in the Ukraine scandal to end up unceremoniously dumped by Trump.
The president is deeply frustrated with the media coverage and pace of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, but that irritation extends to many corners of the West Wing, said 16 current and former senior administration officials and allies to both Trump and Mulvaney, who were granted anonymity to speak candidly about internal reactions to the looming impeachment threat.
“It’s hard to discern any impeachment strategy whatsoever, so it makes it really hard to judge what Mulvaney is or isn’t doing,” Whipple said. “Podesta was extremely effective during President [Bill] Clinton’s impeachment – he called himself the ‘secretary of shit.’ [H.R.] Haldeman, not so much. So Mulvaney’s somewhere in that spectrum, but he’s a lot closer to Haldeman than he is to Podesta.” Haldeman served as President Richard Nixon’s chief of staff during Watergate.
Two senior administration officials insisted Mulvaney’s standing inside the White House is fine. Still, the president’s tendency to change his mind abruptly and unpredictably has created an atmosphere of uncertainty for nearly everyone around him – including Mulvaney.
“This is the point in Trumpworld where they figure out who to blame,” a second former administration official said.
A spokesman for Mulvaney did not comment and the White House press office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Mulvaney allies said the acting chief is content to maintain a low profile and help the president as the Democratic proceedings unfold, but they said he would be ready to make a graceful exit if he senses Trump is preparing to make him a scapegoat or if the chaos inside the White House becomes unsustainable. One former Trump aide recalled his time in the administration this way: “You learn how to walk and chew gum even when stuff is blowing up around you, but eventually it becomes too much for everyone.”
Another former White House official said “Mick, in general, is someone who likes to keep his options open,” noting Mulvaney made a play to become president of the University of South Carolina weeks before he decided to remain inside the administration. He similarly was eyeing both the chief of staff job and the secretary of Commerce slot when he was actively leading the Office of Management and Budget.
“I don’t think he’s ever viewed this role as something he would do forever,” one Mulvaney ally said about his stint as acting chief of staff. “If his plan was to stay for a very long time, he would have pushed for a title change. If he got a real sense that the president wants somebody else, he’s not going to fight that. He is in good standing with Trump right now, but this is a hard time for anybody. So, it wouldn’t shock me if he’s thinking about what he wants to do next.”
Part of the problem for Mulvaney is the competition he finds himself in with colleagues and outside allies who have the president’s ear and are trying to steer him toward particular impeachment strategies. One of those figures – Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani – has himself become a central part of the impeachment probe after encouraging the president for months to focus on a conspiracy theory surrounding the overseas business dealings of Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son.
“With Rudy there, how can Mulvaney be viewed as a wartime consigliere?”
The uncontrollable former New York mayor has been a ubiquitous presence on Fox News since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) formally endorsed an impeachment inquiry – his appearances often filled with baseless claims about the Bidens and legal threats against Democratic lawmakers.
“With Rudy there, how can Mulvaney be viewed as a wartime consigliere?” a Republican close to the White House said.
The person added that White House senior adviser Jared Kushner has also sought to guide his father-in-law’s response to impeachment. Kushner, who was against setting up an internal war room, has encouraged the White House to outsource as much of its political response as possible to the president’s reelection campaign, according to two sources familiar with internal deliberations, one of whom said Mulvaney and Kushner have been “working together for the most part, but don’t always see eye to eye.”
“Jared is as tough as they come … and I just don’t know whether Mulvaney is on that level. Does he take prisoners?” the Republican close to the White House said.
As Mulvaney and his White House colleagues have deliberated the best counter-impeachment strategy for Trump to follow, the president has pursued a go-it-alone approach that raises questions about the futility of their efforts. Pleas for Trump to focus on policy matters and cut Giuliani out of his orbit have fallen on deaf ears, according to one congressional GOP aide. Instead, the president has unleashed rapid-fire attacks against his political opponents – including Sen. Mitt Romney, who Trump called a “pompous ‘ass'” after the Utah Republican described his overtures to Ukraine and China as “appalling.”
Trump’s belief that he is his own best messenger has also led to his indefinite suspension of the daily White House briefing – a controlled environment that would allow his press secretary to choose which impeachment-related questions to respond to, as opposed to conducting damage control each time the president engages in meandering predeparture Q&A sessions on the White House South Lawn.
It’s one of the reasons those close to Mulvaney said his decision to remain out of sight has less to do with any hesitancy to defend the president and more to do with what Trump himself desires from his top aide.
“Clearly the president wants to be the messenger here. What difference does it make to have the chief of staff on TV?” the Mulvaney ally said.
But others said speculation about Mulvaney’s role in the impeachment fightback is itself an indication that he has lost clout with the president and that he might be telling Trump what he wants to hear only to preserve his status while he plots an exit.
“The frustration I’ve heard is that they’re not really set up to fight this impeachment battle and he would normally be the one spearheading that effort on the inside since he’s chief of staff,” one of the former White House officials said.