Mulvaney, who ran the Office of Management and Budget before taking the acting chief of staff role, said he found the growing deficit — which reached almost $1 trillion in 2019, soaring in the Trump era – “extraordinarily disturbing” but that neither party, nor voters, cared much about it. Republicans, he said, were “evolving” since Trump became president.
Mulvaney’s comments, which lasted about an hour, came as he visited Britain and Ireland to talk about Brexit and other issues, administration officials said. He was pressed hard on impeachment, climate change, trade policy and other topics by students who seemed skeptical of him. The audience was packed, according to an attendee.
He criticized his predecessor, John F. Kelly, as chief of staff, and railed against the “deep state,” giving the audience examples of civil servants who he said were working against the Trump administration. Audience members battled with him repeatedly over the role of the civil service in the government.
Mulvaney, a former congressman from South Carolina, said climate change was a difficult political issue in the United States. “Less so, as to whether or not it’s happening, more so, as to its causes,” he said. Trump has questioned the existence of climate change at times, defying the near-universal consensus of scientists.
“We take the position in my party that asking people to change their lifestyle dramatically, including by paying more taxes, is simply not something we are interested in doing,” Mulvaney said in answer to a question about why the government was not spending and doing more to fight climate change. The audience laughed at his answer.
Mulvaney robustly defended the president’s actions regarding Ukraine, which were at the center of the impeachment inquiry. He said the president, during Oval Office discussions, delineated two reasons he was withholding aid to Ukraine. He said the president regularly complained that Europeans don’t give Ukraine enough money. “And number two, they’re corrupt as hell, which is true,” Mulvaney said.
He said the president “legally, had almost total control of the money” going to Ukraine until the end of the 2019 fiscal year — when there was a legal issue as to whether the money, appropriated by Congress, had to be sent.
The acting chief of staff said, without offering specificity, that he’d had other conversations with the president about Ukraine — but those were the two reasons the president withheld the aid. He joked about his news conference last year in which he conceded, from the White House podium, that there was a “quid pro quo” and that it was normal in foreign policy and that people should “get over it.”
Mulvaney said he realized he’d made a mistake when he walked away from the podium. Another White House official, he said, “came up to me and said, ‘Do you know you just said X?’ I said, ‘No I didn’t say that.’ ”
Soon, he realized, “S--t, I said X.” Mulvaney issued a statement later that day attacking the media for mischaracterizing his comments.
Mulvaney claimed that Democrats were not truly interested in witnesses for the impeachment hearings because they did not push hard to have Energy Secretary Rick Perry and the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, among others, testify during the proceedings. When former national security adviser John Bolton moved to go to court over whether he could be compelled to testify, Mulvaney said, Democrats dropped the whole issue because they were surprised.
He said the Democrats’ campaign to secure witnesses — which the White House stonewalled — was “orchestrated to be a PR campaign to try to make the president look bad without actually going through what you’d do if you were serious.”
Mulvaney said that Giuliani would have been forced to testify had Democrats pushed the issue but that it would have been difficult to force Mulvaney to testify because of his proximity to the president. “It was almost virtually guaranteed that Rudy Giuliani would have had to testify,” he said, adding that Giuliani had little executive privilege about his activities with “Lev Parnas and the other person.” Giuliani worked with Parnas and Igor Fruman on his investigation in Ukraine. Parnas and Fruman have since been indicted on campaign finance charges, and New York investigators continue to probe their efforts.
“Attorney-client privilege would not have been into effect as to what most of what Giuliani would say,” he said.
He said, inaccurately, that Democrats never subpoenaed Giuliani. Democrats did subpoena Giuliani for documents, which he ignored.
“From the very beginning, my Democratic colleagues knew they were never going to get the president,” he said. “[Republicans] were probably guilty of the same thing versus [President Bill] Clinton in the 1990s.” Clinton was impeached by the House but was acquitted by the Senate in 1999.
Mulvaney expressed continued frustration with the “deep state,” a pejorative term often used by conservatives to describe an alleged cabal of bureaucrats trying to undermine the elected government, which he said is “real” and the administration is seeking to change. He said it was frustrating that the administration could not fire more people who work at agencies who do not implement the president’s orders.
When he ran the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Mulvaney said, he guessed that 1,690 of his 1,700 employees voted for Hillary Clinton, and 1,600 wanted to block Trump. He did not state how he reached that guess. He said he almost swore at a lawyer who tried to block one of his moves, saying he shouldn’t do that. “That’s not their damn business what I should or should not do,” he said.
Bureaucrats who want to make policy instead of implement it, he said, “should put their name on the effing ballot and run” for office, he said.
Mulvaney told the audience that he disagreed with testimony from witnesses during impeachment hearings that foreign policy should be left to professionals “and domestic U.S. politics should not have any influence on foreign policy.”
“I wholeheartedly object to that,” he said. “ . . . You cannot have this passive resistance within an administration.”
Mulvaney said he disagreed with the president daily but criticized Kelly, his predecessor, for making his disagreements public. For example, Mulvaney admitted that he was once not a fan of the wall along the border with Mexico but had begun to see more of its benefits as he met with homeland security professionals. “Can you cut through a wall?” he said. “Absolutely. Does it take time to do so? Absolutely.”
There are often loud, gladiator-like fights in the Oval Office, Mulvaney said, and the president doesn’t mind. But he said that aides leave their personal views at the door after the president makes a decision, citing Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic policy adviser, who “made his reputation” as a free trader, Mulvaney said, but now advocates for the president’s tariffs.
Mulvaney said he hoped the legacy of the administration would be that supply-side economics works and that it will be the “greatest interest on a non-scandalous basis” for historians.
He said he was not concerned about his “acting” title 14 months into the job and noted he got the offer the first time he ever met the president.
“It’d be a $20,000 pay cut to take the job,” he said, adding he was able to keep his old salary instead of taking a lower one that other chiefs of staff took.
“A life expectancy of a chief of staff is roughly 18 months,” he said. “Generally speaking, this job does not last that long. . . . Who knows how much longer I’m going to last?”