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How Acting Chief of Staff Mulvaney Has Fared In His Time In The Trump White House


Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney is in a precarious position. It's been almost a year, and President Trump hasn't lifted the acting from his title. Now Mulvaney is a central player in the Ukraine scandal, and his words and actions may have helped fuel the impeachment push against his boss. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Mick Mulvaney is a fast-talking, jovial former congressman from South Carolina. He had kept a relatively low profile as acting chief of staff until Thursday, when he held a press briefing best described as disastrous. He's also a rare Trump White House survivor, having served as White House budget director since the start. But like everyone in President Trump's orbit, Mick Mulvaney seems acutely aware that it could all end in a tweet.


MICK MULVANEY: The president gets to use who he wants to use. The president wants to fire me today and hire somebody else, he can.

KEITH: That was Mulvaney last week. But over the summer, he was similarly sanguine when interviewed on stage as part of a Wall Street Journal event.


MULVANEY: He could make me the permanent chief of staff tomorrow and then fire me on Thursday. He could leave me in the acting for the next six years. It just doesn't make a difference. I do think he likes the environment that we're in now just because there's a lot less infighting.

KEITH: Current and former White House aides say the environment Mulvaney has set up as chief of staff is free-flowing and a bit harried at times. One said Mulvaney knows who the boss is and will say things like, I've been given clear orders. In that same interview, Mulvaney compared himself to his two Trump-era predecessors.


MULVANEY: In sort of a mix between the complete, freewheeling, wild, Wild West of Reince Priebus and the militaristic, Marine camp of John Kelly. We found a happy medium between those two things.

KEITH: In other words, he's giving a president who seems to thrive on a certain amount of chaos exactly what he wants.

LEON PANETTA: Chaos without a strategy is a prescription for disaster.

KEITH: Leon Panetta was chief of staff during the Clinton administration.

PANETTA: Are you going to be a chief of staff to that kind of president, or are you simply going to be a high-level secretary that's going to do whatever the president wants? That's a fundamental decision. And I think Mulvaney has made the decision that he's going to basically serve as an enabler rather than a chief of staff.

KEITH: This week's testimony from Ambassador William Taylor in the House impeachment inquiry alleges that Mulvaney wasn't just an enabler. He said Mulvaney delivered the order from President Trump to budget officials to block military aid to Ukraine and that Mulvaney himself maintained a skeptical view of Ukraine. Already in that press briefing last week, Mulvaney had put himself right in the middle of the funding holdup.


MULVANEY: I've been in the office a couple times with him talking about this. And he said, look, Mick, this is a corrupt place. Everybody knows it's a corrupt place.

KEITH: So Mulvaney said on live TV there were three reasons President Trump held up the money - corruption in Ukraine, a concern that other countries in Europe weren't contributing enough, and...


MULVANEY: Did he also mentioned to me in pass the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that's it. And that's why we held up the money.

KEITH: Mulvaney was referring to a debunked conspiracy theory about Russian hacking of the DNC. He was also publicly confirming the very thing the White House and President Trump had been denying for weeks - that financial support to Ukraine hinged on a politically motivated investigation. Within hours, the White House and Mulvaney were scrambling to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Republican Congressman Francis Rooney from Florida was one of many alarmed by what Mulvaney had said.


FRANCIS ROONEY: How do you walk back? I mean, it's not like you were misinterpreted. The words seemed to me very clear. And I was surprised that he did that. But, you know, I don't know how you walk that back.

KEITH: Congressional Republicans who served with Mulvaney when he was a Freedom Caucus member quickly called him a friend. They didn't try to defend his remarks, instead focusing on the retraction. When President Trump was asked about it, he had notably little to say.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think he - I think he clarified it.

KEITH: All of this unleashed a flurry of speculation about how long Mulvaney would keep a job that he'd never even fully been given. Shortly after, word leaked of a senior staff meeting where Mulvaney was told he was doing a good job. Someone who was in the room confirmed to NPR that everyone then applauded him. It was a private moment of support in the midst of what has been a very public mess for the acting chief of staff. As for whether the president has confidence in Mulvaney, a spokesman said, yes. You'll know when he doesn't.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.