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Mick Mulvaney on the White House, 2020, and Mueller

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Indeed, losing has its consolations when you’re at the peak of political power. By any number of measures, the White House seems in a state of siege. Congressional Democrats are bombarding the administration with subpoenas, setting up a standoff with a president who has no wish to comply. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report lays out in vivid detail how Trump might have obstructed justice. No policy decision coming from the West Wing ever seems settled, with Trump reversing course at a moment’s notice. “We always say, ‘This is the worst,’” one White House official told us. “But this is really the worst.”

But walk into Mulvaney’s office, and he’ll tell you everything is fine, even fun! As he sees it, it’s not his place to second-guess the president’s instincts. His job is to “make the president successful and help the president get reelected,” Mulvaney said—and in the meantime, enjoy the perks: unfettered access to the leader of the free world, influence in key policy decisions, and an office with a fireplace down the hall from the Oval. Mulvaney, of course, has an incentive to say all is terrific, all the time, in the White House, in order to appease the boss. Still, he comes across as a guy relishing the ride for as long as it will last. For him, reports that the White House is steeped in more controversies than usual are baseless. From where he sits, legs crossed, jacketless, life in the West Wing is totally serene—and the West Wing becoming a place where Trump has more latitude than ever is exactly the way Mulvaney wants it.

When Trump tapped him for the chief-of-staff gig in December, Mulvaney had already been leading the Office of Management and Budget for almost two years, a job he continues to hold. At first, it looked as if Mulvaney, the president’s third chief of staff in less than two years, wouldn’t last long. His title was acting chief, suggesting that he was merely auditioning for the role while Trump hunted for a permanent replacement.

But congressional and White House sources, who like others we interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to talk freely, suggested that Mulvaney actually prefers the qualifier. “He’s always looking to the next thing, and feels ‘acting’ allows him to more fluidly take that next thing when it comes up,” one senior House GOP aide said. Some believe that Mulvaney is interested in succeeding Wilbur Ross as the secretary of Commerce, but for now, he’s staying put. “He could fire any of us tomorrow,” Mulvaney said. “So what difference does it make if you’re ‘acting’ or ‘permanent’?”

Mulvaney’s first order of business as chief of staff was to loosen the strictures that Kelly had put in place. The retired four-star general had tried in vain to bring some discipline to a freewheeling White House, instituting tighter controls on who was able to see Trump and what information people were able to give him. Even the president’s family members—daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner—were supposed to be subordinate to Kelly in a top-down structure reminiscent of the military culture he knew well.

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