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Mick Mulvaney, from Washington reformer to chief of graft

No matter what he says, don’t get over it, America

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney answers questions during a briefing at the White House on October 17. He and other staffers were caught off guard by President Donald Trump's tweet attacking a senior U.S. diplomat as she testified in the impeachment proceeding. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney answers questions during a briefing at the White House on October 17. He and other staffers were caught off guard by President Donald Trump's tweet attacking a senior U.S. diplomat as she testified in the impeachment proceeding. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

OPINION — In 2008, days after political newcomer Mick Mulvaney won a seat in the South Carolina state Senate, he told a local newspaper that many voters had suggested that he run for the U.S. House seat held by Democrat John Spratt instead. “I couldn’t stop laughing,” Mulvaney said. “I’m perfectly happy being in the Senate.”

But within a year, Mulvaney was not only challenging Spratt, he defeated him handily in 2010 on a message of reforming Washington and slashing federal spending. “There’s a few things I just think we all believe,” he said in one campaign ad. “We cannot continue to spend money we don’t have.”

That shirt-sleeved, bookish reformer, who talked to voters at a diner over drinks in Styrofoam cups, arrived in Washington in 2011 on a tea party wave of cutting bureaucracy and ending corruption.

But some nine years later, after a six-year stint in the House and a quick ascent into the Trump administration, the Mulvaney who promised to end deficits has expanded them. The man who swore he’d cut budgets juiced his own. And the shirt-sleeved, small-business owner that South Carolina sent to D.C. is now at the center of an international corruption scandal he not only tolerated, but may have championed.

If you’re surprised, in the words of Mulvaney himself, get over it.

Mulvaney’s road to this incredible moment — of the reformer now possibly in need of reform — began in the days after Donald Trump won the White House. According to a Politico profile titled “Mick the Knife,” Mulvaney quickly reached out to Speaker Paul Ryan to ask that he recommended him to Trump as director of the Office of Management and Budget. A Freedom Caucus founding member, Mulvaney was known and respected in conservative circles as a real-deal, small-government tax cutter.

Although Trump was never known as a conservative at heart, appointing Mulvaney put hard-liners on the right at ease that he had someone on the budget who could be trusted behind the wheel. And Mulvaney did indeed recommended massive cuts to Trump’s first budget — for nearly every federal agency except his own. While most agencies took a major haircut, I reported at the time that OMB got a 7.7 percent increase in the White House budget request. The extra $8 million was proposed to go for an additional 30 full-time staff positions, which put the total number of staff at OMB at 495. 

As Mulvaney continued to recommend cost-reducing reforms like adding work requirements for welfare and major cuts to entitlement programs, his own shop seemed to be immune from those measures. After he took on the additional role as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, he set about in an effort to change the agency’s name to take the focus from “consumer” to bureaucracy. But an internal analysis showed the change would cost the bureau up to $19 million in document and printing costs, along with as much as $300 million for outside industry groups to make the change, The Hill reported

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When Kathy Kraninger took over as the permanent director in 2018, one of her first acts was to leave the name as it was. “I care much more about what we do, than what we are called,” she said in an email to CFPB employees, which she shared on Twitter

Last December, Mulvaney went from a frequent presence in the West Wing to a near permanent one as acting White House chief of staff, where a loophole meant that he and his top aide were exempt from the White House’s $183,000 salary cap, topping them out well above other longtime staffers like Kellyanne Conway, according to a White House release of staff salaries

With controversies and potential impeachment swirling, Mulvaney kept a relatively low profile as chief of staff until last week, when an appearance in the White House briefing room to announce the site of the 2020 G-7 summit spiraled into a defense of the truly indefensible.

From the podium, Mulvaney:

  • said the president’s choice of his own Trump Doral property to host the G-7 summit “makes perfect sense.”
  • shrugged at the role of Rudy Giuliani as a parallel emissary to Ukrainian officials — “The president gets to use who he wants to use.”
  • told reporters a quid pro quo in negotiations is no big deal — “We do that all the time with foreign policy.”
  • scolded anyone who thinks asking a foreign country to investigate the Democratic National Committee is a problem — “I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”

Mulvaney consistently conflated personal and official benefits to the president; U.S. foreign policy and American campaign priorities; and negotiation and threats. It left some incredulous members of Congress wondering whether he and this White House even know the difference between right and wrong anymore. And if they do know the difference, whether they care.

Later, Mulvaney put out a statement walking back the “quid pro quo” comment, but the damage was done. On his own radio show later, Sean Hannity wondered aloud, “What is Mulvaney even talking about? I just think he’s dumb, I really do.” The music played off with the show’s tagline, “Draining the swamp … one corrupt politician at a time.”

No matter what Mick Mulvaney says, don’t get over it, America. There is a difference between right and wrong. We have laws that that govern politicians’ behavior, especially when they can’t govern their own. Don’t ever get over it.

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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