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Trump names budget director Mick Mulvaney as acting White House chief of staff

President Trump on Dec. 14 tweeted that White House budget director Mick Mulvaney would become acting chief of staff. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

President Trump on Friday abruptly named Mick Mulvaney, currently the director of the Office of Management and Budget, as acting White House chief of staff, elevating a conservative ideologue with congressional experience to steer the administration through a treacherous phase.

Mulvaney replaces John F. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general who failed to impose discipline on a chaotic West Wing and was ousted last week by Trump after the president grew tired of Kelly’s restrictive management.

The White House sent mixed messages Friday about the length of Mulvaney’s tenure and whether he would be named to the post permanently, with aides saying Trump wanted to preserve flexibility. A White House official said in a briefing to reporters that deputy budget director Russell Vought would replace Mulvaney as OMB director, but White House press secretary Sarah Sanders clarified later that Mulvaney would not resign from the OMB. Still, she said he would spend “all of his time devoted” to acting as chief of staff and Vought would run the OMB.

Mulvaney’s tentative appointment caps — for now, at least — Trump’s extraordinarily public week-long search for his third chief of staff in two years, after the president’s first choice turned down the job and other candidates removed themselves from consideration.

Earlier Friday, Chris Christie was described by White House aides as a leading contender for the job after the former New Jersey governor met privately with Trump and first lady Melania Trump for more than an hour in the White House residence on Thursday night. But Christie called Trump at midday Friday to take his name off the list. A person close to Christie said a number of current and former White House aides warned Christie that the building was unmanageable and that “no one can have success there.”

Trump grew deeply frustrated at the rejections and the media narrative that no one of high stature wanted to be his chief of staff, according to a senior White House official, so he decided suddenly on Friday afternoon to tap Mulvaney.

Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney testified Feb. 13 before the Senate Budget Committee on the President’s Fiscal Year 2019 Budget. (Video: Senate Budget Committee)

“I am pleased to announce that Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management & Budget, will be named Acting White House Chief of Staff, replacing General John Kelly, who has served our Country with distinction,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Mick has done an outstanding job while in the Administration.”

Trump added, “I look forward to working with him in this new capacity as we continue to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! John will be staying until the end of the year. He is a GREAT PATRIOT and I want to personally thank him for his service!”

Mulvaney wrote on Twitter: “This is a tremendous honor. I look forward to working with the President and the entire team. It’s going to be a great 2019!”

Trump selected Mulvaney because of the relationship the two men have forged during the first two years of the administration and because of Mulvaney’s six years serving in Congress, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.

“He got picked because the president liked him,” the official said. “They get along.”

Mulvaney, a frequent visitor to the Oval Office, was never formally interviewed for chief of staff. He met Friday with Trump for a scheduled discussion of the budget showdown, officials said, but left as the acting chief of staff.

Mulvaney has an easy rapport with Trump, often taking large charts and colorful graphics into the Oval Office to explain fiscal policy, administration officials said. Trump also relies on Mulvaney for political advice, polling him about races during the fall midterm elections. Trump has also admired Mulvaney’s performances on cable TV shows and considers him a talented golf partner, officials said.

At a private dinner this year, Mulvaney told Trump that he wanted to be chief of staff and vowed loyalty to the president’s family, including daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, both of them senior White House advisers, according to an official with knowledge of the conversation. At the time, Trump was deciding whether he would keep Kelly as chief of staff, and Mulvaney told the president that if he were chief, he would not leak to reporters and would manage the staff but not the president — an answer Trump liked, this official said.

Mulvaney, 51, will inherit a White House under siege. Democrats assume the majority in the House of Representatives in January and are promising multiple oversight investigations, including into alleged corruption in the administration. Meanwhile, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation has been intensifying, while federal prosecutors in New York are conducting a separate investigation that involves illegal hush-money payments to women who alleged that they had affairs with Trump.

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Mulvaney has worn several hats in the Trump administration. He has served as budget director since the beginning, but he also held the role of acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for the past year until his permanent successor, Kathleen Kraninger, was sworn in this week.

Mulvaney was elected to the House in 2010 as a South Carolina member of the tea party movement and, as a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, was known for his professed support of fiscal conservatism. He was among the group of House Republicans who called for severe spending cuts and helped lead a government shutdown in 2013.

Trump and Mulvaney hardly knew each other when the incoming president asked him to serve as his budget director. Mulvaney evolved quickly into a Trump-minded political figure, backing the president’s big-debt vision and accepting that many of the spending cuts he had spent years demanding as a congressman would never come to fruition under a Trump administration.

Mulvaney oversaw a dramatic expansion of the deficit, in part because of a big increase in spending as well last year’s tax cut law. Deficits are approaching $1 trillion a year, an unusually large sum during an economic expansion. Mulvaney’s budget proposal last year would have been considered sacrilegious for members of the Freedom Caucus.

“He’s been gung-ho on everything the president has tried to do,” said Steve Bell, a former Republican staff director with the Senate Budget Committee. “He’s put out budgets that he probably knew were incoherent because the president asked him to. And he’ll probably do whatever the president asks him to do.”

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Mulvaney has pushed Trump to make cuts to Medicare or Social Security as part of a broader budget deal, but Trump has rejected doing so, sensitive to his campaign promises not to cut entitlement programs.

Paul Winfree, the White House head of budget policy in the Trump administration until early 2018, said Mulvaney often saw his job as taking the president’s requests and making them more fiscally conservative — even if only on the margins, such as by cutting funding from an infrastructure program.

“There have been a lot of people in this administration who are more willing to tell the president what he wants to hear,” Winfree said. “He never laid off of him. He is very much a team player. He’ll go out there and deliver the line once the line has been derived. But that doesn’t mean he always agreed with the line.”

Trump’s selection of Mulvaney comes after several candidates announced publicly that they were not interested in the position.

Nick Ayers, chief of staff to Vice President Pence, was angling for the job for months, but when Trump offered it to him last weekend he declined. Ayers wanted to be an acting chief of staff for a few months, but Trump insisted he commit to serve for two years, officials said.

“In the best of times, this is a thankless, all-consuming, brutal job,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers,” a history of White House chiefs of staff. “And under this president in particular, it’s almost mission impossible. . . . Nobody wants the job because it’s impossible to perform, given Trump’s personality and his belief that he can fly solo.”

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Trump has bristled at the idea that few wanted the job: “For the record, there were MANY people who wanted to be the White House Chief of Staff,” he tweeted late Friday. “Mick M will do a GREAT job!”

Another top candidate was U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer, but Trump was reluctant to move him to the White House in the middle of high-stakes negotiations with China, officials said.

As a former elected official, Mulvaney has maintained his political profile, making calls to donors and attending political breakfasts and lunches, often speaking of Trump with affection.

Though Mulvaney has relationships among House Republicans, he has virtually no credibility with congressional Democrats, many of whom scoffed when he helped Trump add $2 trillion to the debt over the past two years.

“Based on Mulvaney’s history both at OMB and his closeness to Trump, I don’t see how this helps with Democrats or improves some sort of a bipartisan process on key issues,” said Jared Bernstein, who was chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden. “He’s a hardcore Trump supporter, far more than many others in the administration, which is saying a lot.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has complained about working with Mulvaney, according to people familiar with her comments. And Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) similarly dislikes Mulvaney, people close to him have said.

“It sends a clear message that at this critical time, the president would choose to elevate the architect of the last Republican government shutdown,” said Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman.

At the White House, Mulvaney established himself as one of the most detail-oriented officials. He developed a deep knowledge of the intricacies of numerous government programs and was unashamed to push back on any criticism that the Trump administration attracted. For example, Mulvaney defended the decision to call for cuts in food assistance for the elderly and young children.

As chief of staff, however, Mulvaney will have a far broader mandate. He will have to manage domestic and foreign affairs, not to mention adapt to the proclivities of Trump, a micromanager who is known to make impulsive decisions and subvert bureaucratic processes.