“We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress,” Mulvaney told the American Bankers Association, according to the New York Times's Glenn Thrush. “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”
Mulvaney, to be clear, did say that his South Carolina constituents resided at the top of that hierarchy. “If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talked to you without exception, regardless of the financial contributions.” He also said he “might” talk to those who gave him money.
But it's really difficult not to infer from his comments — once you get beneath that top level of the hierarchy — that access to him comes at a price. He said it was a prerequisite: Those who hadn't ponied up had no chance of seeing him. It was no guarantee of access, but it was a requirement. That's the definition of pay for play.
The comments could prove problematic for Mulvaney and his apparently rising stock in the White House. Whenever Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has been rumored to be a short-timer — which has happened with some frequency — Mulvaney's name has risen to the top of the list to fill the post. President Trump has reportedly floated Mulvaney as a replacement.
Mulvaney has displayed a tendency for saying things he perhaps shouldn't. In February, he called the budget passed by Congress and signed by President Trump “dangerous” for continuing to explode the deficit and said he “probably” would have voted against it in his former life as a tea-party-aligned congressman. He also has admitted, contrary to claims of their proponents, that the GOP's tax cuts wouldn't pay for themselves.
The latest comments may be his most impolitic and unhelpful, though. Trump as a candidate regularly decried the system of influence in Washington, casting himself as a populist. Trump said he played the game as an influencer who bought access, but he also said that setup was corrupt and pledged to “drain the swamp.”
It's difficult to think of a more stereotypically swampy arrangement than what Mulvaney described Tuesday.