Mick Mulvaney is isolated, marginalized and growing more irrelevant to the West Wing staff he’s meant to lead during one of the most consequential moments of the Trump presidency.
Though the White House’s acting chief of staff is still participating in impeachment meetings and working out of the White House, the strategy is increasingly being driven by White House lawyers, legislative affairs team and top officials from the press and communications shops who spent the week setting up a rapid-response team and developing plans to push back on witnesses’ testimony in real time.
It’s an awkward staff situation that mirrors so many moments of the Trump presidency: aides trying to proceed with business as usual while unusual dramas play out, and the very people expected to lead the effort instead witnessing jockeying by potential replacements.
Together, these officials are working to map out the way both the White House and Republican lawmakers will react in a unified fashion to the first day of televised impeachment hearings, which kick off Wednesday morning.
Top staffers from the White House including the new temporary hire, Tony Sayegh, attended two meetings on Tuesday with House and Senate press staff to plan for a coordinated response, according to two attendees.
President Donald Trump has also promised to release the transcript of a second call with the Ukrainian president by the week’s end, he said on Twitter — giving him ammunition to potentially turn the conversation away from Capitol Hill.
All of it is moving forward with Mulvaney as sidelined as ever.
He ended up in this tenuous position after four days of back-and-forth federal court proceedings after his attorneys tried to join a lawsuit that asked a judge to rule on whether or not top officials should be forced to testify on Capitol Hill after Democrats subpoenaed them. Mulvaney decided to drop the lawsuit entirely on Tuesday morning, after his allies said he was surprised by the political blow-back and internal sniping his own court filing created.
Trump allies were quite surprised over the weekend that Mulvaney would so openly defy the orders of the White House counsel’s office and engage in any way with the impeachment inquiry.
The president has already been deeply irritated by the parade of administration officials testifying on Capitol Hill, said a person close to the president. Mulvaney even dangling seeming openness to appearing before Democrats turned off some White House officials and Trump allies.
“The White House attorney said no cooperation, no witnesses, and no documents. That is what the president expects should happen,” said the person close to the president.
A Mulvaney ally said the acting chief did not intend to create drama or dangle the possibility of handing over information to the Democrats by filing the original lawsuit late Friday night. Mulvaney “intends to follow any lawful order of the president,” his ally stressed over the weekend.
Another senior administration official called the Mulvaney machinations a process that’s done with for now. “Now we move on to whatever’s next tomorrow,” the official said.
The open question now is whether Congress holds Mulvaney in contempt for ignoring its subpoena.
The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment.
“Mulvaney is kind of a lone wolf and not coordinating with people like the counsel’s office,” said one former senior administration official. “This just reinforces what some of us already know: Some people play the inside game. Some people play the outside game. He is playing both poorly right now. Once impeachment is over, my guess is that he is not long for this world” inside the White House.
Adding to the speculation that Mulvaney is no longer within Trump’s inner circle and ultimately replaceable as chief of staff has been the recent, constant presence of Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) at the White House. Meadows has been a ubiquitous figure in the West Wing ever since House Democrats launched their inquiry in September, and Trump sees him as a loyal ally who provided useful advice early on, when Mulvaney and other senior administration officials were reluctant to take charge or establish a coherent defense strategy.
One White House official described Meadows as the internal “sherpa” for impeachment, likening the conservative congressman, who is especially close with the president, to aides who spent long hours guiding Trump’s Supreme Court nominees through the grueling Senate confirmation process.
Beyond participating in White House meetings on impeachment, Meadows has stayed in contact with Trump by phone. They speak daily, sometimes multiple times. He has also accompanied the president to a handful of events over the past week, including the Ultimate Fighting Championship at Madison Square Garden and a Kentucky campaign rally on the eve of the state’s gubernatorial election.
Two sources familiar with Meadows’ thinking said he has considered leaving his perch in the House Freedom Caucus to become chief of staff or to pursue other opportunities in the administration but wouldn’t make a play for the top White House job unless Mulvaney or Trump approached him first.
Meadows and Mulvaney worked closely together as members of the Freedom Caucus until the former South Carolina congressman left to lead the Office of Management and Budget shortly after Trump’s inauguration.
“He isn’t going to be speaker because we’re not going to win the House back, so there could eventually be an opening if Trump wins reelection or Mulvaney gets canned,” said a second person close to the president, who added that Trump “will want to shake things up” if he succeeds in his bid for a second term.
But Meadows himself has recently downplayed his interest in a potential White House role, including by shifting his focus back to Capitol Hill, where the impeachment inquiry will go public for the first time on Wednesday. Meadows told the Washington Examiner over the weekend that Trump “is not feeling me out for chief of staff,” and is eager to step aside and let former Treasury spokesman Tony Sayegh and former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi help the White House navigate the uncertain political terrain as temporary advisers to the president, according to one of the sources familiar with Meadows’ thinking.
“Now that Democrats have decided to go public with this charade, Mark is in a better position to defend President Trump from Capitol Hill and let the newly assembled White House team handle impeachment from that end of Pennsylvania Avenue,” said a former Trump aide.