While many of his colleagues in Trump world have been racking up personal indignities, Mick Mulvaney has has been busy racking up job titles. Last week, the White House announced that the former congressman from South Carolina would become the president’s acting chief of staff, replacing John Kelly, who is slated to step down at the end of this year after enduring about a year and a half in the world’s most crushing babysitter’s gig. This will be Mulvaney’s third high-profile assignment within the administration. He joined as director of the Office of Management and Budget, a position he technically still holds and will retain in name, while handing over its actual responsibilities to an underling. Until recently, he also served as acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he was largely responsible for undermining its stated mission of protecting consumers from financial services companies.
Why has Mulvaney become Donald’s Trump favorite pinch hitter? It’s an interesting question, given that there wasn’t anything obvious about the man that marked him for success early in the administration. He came to the White House as a Tea Partier known mostly for staking out extreme positions on federal spending—during the Obamanyears, he suggested with a straight face that the government could breach the debt ceiling without much consequence—who seemed like he would pair awkwardly with a president who’d promised not to cut massive entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and barely gave lip-service to the deficit. And had he been employed in any other administration, Mulvaney might have been shamed into an early retirement long ago. But over the medium term at least, he has thrived in an environment where others have lit their political careers in flames. There seem to be four reasons why.
First, he plays golf.
Second, he is not cartoonishly corrupt.
Third, he is competent at some things.
Fourth, he’s ideologically flexible.
The fact that these virtues combined make Mulvaney one of the Trump administration’s most valued assets speaks to its generally low standards for personnel. Now let’s take them in turn.
He plays golf
There are two things that have typically managed to sink members of the Trump administration: personality clashes with the president (see: Kelly, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, etc.) and gross, unmistakable personal corruption (see: former Cabinet members Tom Price, Scott Pruitt, and Ryan Zinke). Mulvaney seems to have avoided the first pitfall by making friends with Trump while on the links. As Politico reports, the congressman “didn’t initially have a natural rapport” with the president. House Speaker Paul Ryan and then–Chief of Staff of Reince Priebus, neither of whom Trump particularly loved, had pushed him for budget chief. But Mulvaney decided to cultivate some goodwill by playing golf with our shanker-in-chief in Virginia on the weekends, rather than head home to see his family.
He’s not too corrupt by Trumpian standards
It’s ironic given the various ethics scandals surrounding the president himself, but anybody not named Trump in this administration needs to avoid too obviously getting rich at the public trough, or too flagrantly abusing public funds. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price was forced to resign amid controversy after he’d blown hundreds of thousands on private jet travel. Former EPA chief Scott Pruitt got dumped once his long list of personal scandals—which included everything from renting a condo at below market rent from a lobbyist, to seeking to have an aide ask Chick-fil-A CEO’s whether Pruitt’s wife could get a franchise—reached ludicrously epic proportions. Ryan Zinke, who resigned as secretary of the interior Saturday, is facing a Justice Department investigation into whether he used his position to influence a land deal benefiting his family—as well as scrutiny from Interior’s inspector general about his decision to block a Native American casino after being lobbied by MGM.
Mulvaney has not engaged in this kind of blatant self-dealing (as far as we know). He certainly did other things some might consider corrupt. In Congress, he was a top recipient of donations from the payday lending industry, and once he arrived at the CFPB, he quickly set to work rolling back enforcement on the industry. Some ethics experts have suggested that Mulvaney should be investigated for bribery after admitting that he only took meetings from lobbyists who donated to his campaign, and Democrats may do just that. But that’s garden-variety institutionalized Washington stuff, not “can I use my position to score a fried chicken franchise” corruption. By Trump’s standards, he’s pretty clean.
He’s good at some things
Publicly, at least, Mulvaney did not have a particularly auspicious start in the White House. His first budget paired draconian spending cuts with an an obvious , $2 trillion accounting error (or if you want to be harsher about it, fraud) that made his whole operation look a bit amateurish. He managed to cause a storm by suggesting that the beloved community program Meals on Wheels “doesn’t work” and that cutting government aid to the poor was “compassionate.” Meanwhile, he ultimately failed to convince Trump to push hard for actual significant cuts to the budget. Instead, the deficit has ballooned on his watch (which, frankly, has probably benefited the administration).
These were missteps and failures that might have made Mulvaney a singular magnet for negative attention in another White House. But in this one, they were relatively minor. And taking over at the CFPB gave Mulvaney an opportunity to shine, in his own way. The Trump administration has tried to aggressively deregulate industry. And Mulvaney, who in Congress said he didn’t believe the bureau should even exist, took to that task with relish. He dropped lawsuits and investigations into payday lenders, evidently slow-walked an investigation into Equifax’s massive data breach, initially froze new enforcement actions (though they picked up late in his tenure), and fired the watchdog’s whole advisory board, among other steps. All of this attracted a good deal of negative press coverage, but made him a perfect bureaucrat for the Trump administration’s purposes.
Mulvaney’s track record at the White House show two key things about him: He’s both a bit shameless and very flexible. He’s willing to say and do things that might play poorly, so long as those things advance his goals. At the same time, he’s willing to bend and pick his battles. As a congressman, Mulvaney wrote legislation that would balance the budget. As budget director, when it became clear that Trump was perfectly fine swimming in a sea of red ink, he reversed himself and argued that tax cuts would only grow the economy if they added to the deficit. After failing to make much traction on his first love of cutting entitlement programs, he set about his second love of undercutting the regulatory state. He didn’t simply pick up his ball and go home, unlike, say, former National Economics Council Director Gary Cohn—who left the administration once it became clear he was getting steamrolled on trade issues and he wasn’t going to become Fed chair.
Bendable principles, a basic ability to stay out of the evening news, and a willingness to spend hours on the links with Trump have served Mulvaney well—he has been as successful operating within the administration as anybody. As chief of staff, he may even be able to push the president in a more fiscally conservative direction, by somewhat controlling the people and papers that flow into the oval office, in which case Mulvaney might finally be able to claim victory on the policy long game. Or maybe he’ll survive it just long enough to cash out for a lucrative lobbying gig. Either way, he’s a living sign that in Trump’s Washington, just an iota of talent and self-restraint can go a frighteningly long way.
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