WASHINGTON - President Donald 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 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 other aides said later that Mulvaney may do both jobs.
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.
"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 earlier 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 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 that he would manage the staff but not he president - an answer Trump liked, this official said.
Mulvaney, 51, will inherit a White House under siege. Democrats assume the House majority in January and are promising a series of oversight investigations, including into alleged corruption in the administration. Meanwhile, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's Russia investigation has been intensifying, while a separate investigation by federal prosecutors in New York that involves illegal hush-money payments to women who alleged affairs with Trump is ongoing.
Mulvaney has held several hats in the Trump administration. He has served as budget director since the beginning, but 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 earlier 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 now 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 on 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."
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 former 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, like 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. After meeting with Trump for more than an hour at the White House residence on Thursday evening, former New Jersey governor Chris Christie announced at midday Friday that he had taken himself out of consideration.
Nick Ayers, chief of staff to Vice President Mike 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."
Trump has bristled at the idea that few wanted the job: "For the record, there were MANY people 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 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 former vice president Joe Biden. "He's a hardcore Trump supporter, far more than many others in the administration, which is saying a lot."
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California complained to the White House last year that she did not want to negotiate budget matters through Mulvaney, according to a former administration official. And Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., similarly dislikes Mulvaney, people close to him 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 on 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 both 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.
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Video: President Trump on Dec. 14 tweeted that White House budget director Mick Mulvaney would become acting chief of staff.(Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)
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LONDON - Until quite recently, Zamira Hajiyeva was living the high life, according to British authorities. She had a $14.5 million townhouse in London's tony Knightsbridge neighborhood, a golf club in the English countryside and a gold-plated shopping habit at Harrods.
That was before a British court this year asked the 55-year-old from Azerbaijan an impertinent question: How did she afford those purchases?
That query is at the heart of a bold British push to try to reverse what the government believes is a flood of foreign investment stemming from overseas corruption and criminality.
For more than a decade, ultrarich people from the former Soviet Union, China and the Middle East have turned to London mansions, New York high-rises, and chic properties in Vancouver, Miami and Paris to store their cash. The phenomenon has turned the real estate markets of North American and European cities into the savings accounts of wealthy foreigners - some of whom face allegations of corruption or crime back home.
Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic have failed to stem the tide, which has helped drive property prices beyond the reach of some local residents and, critics argue, facilitated illicit conduct overseas.
Now a new investigative tool being launched by British authorities could serve as a powerful deterrent. But it is fraught, forcing wealthy individuals to demonstrate that they bought property with lawfully earned funds - a departure from legal precedent that required the state to prove the use of illicit money.
"It is quite a dramatic move to put a burden on somebody to explain the legitimacy of their income, versus the reverse burden, which would normally be on the state to show income or property had been unlawfully obtained. We have issues about that," said Jonathan Fisher, a lawyer specializing in white-collar-crime cases.
The case involving Hajiyeva - whose husband is serving a prison sentence in Azerbaijan for embezzlement - is the first of what the government says will be several efforts to deploy the new "unexplained wealth orders" in the coming months.
Under new legislation, law enforcement agencies can seek the orders from a court when they have "reasonable grounds to suspect" that a person lacks enough legal income to explain a large purchase - and has ties to a foreign public official or possible links to crime. If recipients of the orders can't show that they used legitimate income, the court may allow the government to seize the property.
Donald Toon, head of economic and cybercrime at the National Crime Agency, which requested the court orders against Hajiyeva, said the government is enforcing the law that Parliament passed. Britain needed an easier way to target suspected dirty money arriving from overseas, he said, because it's often hard to acquire firm evidence of criminality in foreign countries with unreliable legal systems.
"It cannot be right that, in our view, people are able to acquire and retain property and hold assets in the U.K. where we have a reason for belief that that represents the proceeds of criminal behavior," Toon said in an interview at the agency's South London headquarters. The National Crime Agency plans to ask the High Court for "a handful" of additional orders in the next few months, he said. "The aim is to make it easier to remove dirty money from the system."
That's a goal other Western countries are pursuing, with mixed results. The United States, for one, is strong at investigating and prosecuting money laundering, but it has "serious gaps" in regulation of the lawyers, accountants and real estate agents who help clients launder money, knowingly or unknowingly, according to David Lewis, executive secretary of the Financial Action Task Force, an intergovernmental body that combats illicit finance.
The United Nations has estimated that criminal funds equal to about 2.7 percent of global gross domestic product may be laundered through the financial system annually.
Unexplained wealth orders are a relatively new tool for attacking the problem, though they have been used in a handful of countries, including Australia. In Britain, judges will issue them only if authorities can show that the recipient has suspected ties to crime or to a public official in a non-European country - a position that could enable them to benefit from corruption without sufficient legal scrutiny, lawyers say.
Hajiyeva is married to Jahangir Hajiyev, who in 2016 was convicted of embezzling money from a state-controlled bank in Azerbaijan. London's High Court issued an unexplained wealth order to Hajiyeva in February, asking her to explain the purchase of the London townhouse. A second order involved the golf club.
Hajiyeva argued in court that it was her husband's responsibility to purchase the property, and that she had no knowledge about the payments or the source of the money, court records show. The High Court rejected her attempt to have the first order quashed, saying it was issued on solid grounds.
Hajiyeva has not been charged with a crime in Britain - the unexplained wealth order is a civil investigative tool.
Her home country of Azerbaijan, however, charged her with embezzlement in 2016, saying she worked with her husband to defraud the bank. According to her lawyers, Hajiyeva believes "that the proceedings against her husband were abusive and politically motivated" and that Azerbaijan's charges against her "are similarly tainted."
In late October, acting on an extradition request from Azerbaijan, Britain arrested Hajiyeva and jailed her for nine days before releasing her on bail while the courts consider the extradition request.
In mid-November, reporting to a London police station in a chauffeured SUV for her daily check-in - a condition of her bail, along with wearing an electronic tracking device and abiding by a curfew - Hajiyeva declined to comment to The Washington Post on her legal troubles.
London's rich culture and nightlife and posh boarding schools have made it a magnet for overseas capital, bringing a flood of wealthy foreigners seeking a comfortable life away from their sometimes turbulent home countries.
Foreign money particularly streamed to London after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, when privatization of state-owned industries, often through corrupt auctions, created a new generation of millionaires and billionaires. Buyers from former Soviet republics helped drive London housing prices to record highs, causing consternation among Britons who were priced out of the market.
Far from all foreign investment stems from corruption or crime, but in 2015 the National Crime Agency said overseas criminals were laundering billions of pounds through property purchases. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron said British properties were "being bought by people overseas through anonymous shell companies, some with plundered or laundered cash."
Concerns grew so acute that a pair of anti-corruption campaigners started a "kleptocracy tour" of London, escorting journalists and politicians around wealthy neighborhoods dotted with foreign-owned mansions. The partners are former finance industry executives based in London - Arthur Doohan and Roman Borisovich - who say they fund the effort largely with their own money.
Strolling down a Knightsbridge street in the autumn sunshine last month, Doohan pointed toward a large brick home. "This is Mr. Firtash's iceberg," he said, referring to the Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who is living in Austria fighting a U.S. extradition request on bribery charges that he denies. Iceberg, Mr. Doohan explained, means "a house that goes down as far as it goes up" - in this case with an underground swimming pool, he said.
A few blocks away Doohan arrived at Hajiyeva's townhouse, where all the curtains were drawn. Now that the property is subject to an unexplained wealth order, it "will become a highlight" of the tour, he said. Money laundering "just damages people," he said. "It damages people in Russia and Nigeria, the places where the money was stolen from. They don't get roads, schools, hospitals . . . and it damages people in the U.K.," he added. "The price of property has been driven against the interests of the law-abiding, taxpaying citizens."
In 2009, a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands paid $15 million for the townhouse, which is a short walk from the high-end Harrods department store, according to court papers in the Hajiyeva case. In 2015, when Hajiyeva applied for permanent British residency, she told British authorities that she was the beneficial owner of the company, court records show.
The National Crime Agency "contends that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that Mrs. Hajiyeva's lawfully obtained income would have been insufficient to obtain the property," court records show. At the time of the purchase, her husband was chairman of the state-controlled International Bank of Azerbaijan and appeared to be her only source of income, the agency said. His net income ranged between $29,062 and $70,648 a year, according to bank documents submitted to the court.
Hajiyeva's lawyers say she began visiting London in 2005 and moved there permanently in 2010, after a tumultuous life in her home country. In 2005 she was kidnapped in Azerbaijan by an armed group believed to have connections to the country's Interior Ministry, according to her lawyers.
"She was treated very badly during her kidnapping, and became very unwell, and she and her husband resolved that they would thereafter endeavor to bring up their family at least in part abroad," her lawyers said in a court document.
Hajiyeva lived at the house near Harrods and started spending large sums at the department store, which issued her three customer loyalty cards, according to the National Crime Agency. Between 2006 and 2016, a total of 16.3 million pounds ($20.5 million) was spent using those cards, the agency said.
Many of those purchases were charged to 35 credit cards issued by the Azerbaijani state-controlled bank that Hajiyeva's husband was helping run, according to court records.
Jahangir Hajiyev, meanwhile, was traveling in elite banking circles, attending the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, and helping found a WEF club for up-and-coming companies. The club, he said in a 2007 statement, would "raise the bar for corporate governance and social responsibility for emerging and developed markets alike."
The National Crime Agency said that in 2013, an offshore trust linked to Hajiyeva spent roughly $13 million on the Mill Ride Golf & Country Club, which is set on 170 acres of rolling countryside in the affluent county of Berkshire. Hajiyeva's three children attended schools in Britain, including a boarding school in north London, according to her lawyers. One son is studying at a U.S. university.
Much of Hajiyeva's spending came to a halt after her husband's December 2015 arrest in Azerbaijan on embezzlement charges related to the bank, her lawyers said.
"The family's finances and assets in Azerbaijan were effectively frozen. Her bank accounts in the U.K. were closed in 2016, as, of course, were all the credit and loyalty cards," her lawyers wrote in a court document. "After this date she started to sell personal items and to rely upon the support of friends and family to meet her expenditure, including general household expenditure and school and university fees."
After a trial in Azerbaijan, Hajiyev was convicted in October 2016 and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was also ordered to pay his former bank $39 million, British court documents show.
Azerbaijani authorities also came after Hajiyeva, charging her with embezzlement and requesting her extradition from Britain in early 2017. For more than a year and a half, Britain took no apparent steps to extradite her, Hajiyeva's lawyers say.
In 2017, amid rising anger over housing prices and worsening relations with Russia, Parliament passed legislation introducing the unexplained wealth orders.
The initial court proceedings against Hajiyeva kept her identity anonymous, but after her appeal against the first order failed in October, the court released her name, sparking bold headlines in the British press about her Harrods shopping sprees. One tabloid photographed her walking her tiny dog while wearing what appeared to be Gucci sneakers and carrying an Hermes handbag.
Soon after, Toon said, the National Crime Agency received a tip that Hajiyeva's daughter was having jewels valued at Christie's, the auction house. Investigators swooped into Christie's and seized 49 items worth half a million dollars, including a Boucheron sapphire-and-ruby necklace and a diamond Cartier pendant in the shape of a panther.
The National Crime Agency said that Hajiyev, the jailed banker, had originally purchased some of the jewels and that the "source of the funds" used required further investigation.