After eliminating one contender to be his next White House chief of staff, and being turned down by another, President Donald Trump announced on Friday that Mick Mulvaney, the right-wing congressman who has served as his budget director for the past two years, would take on the role in an acting capacity.
The decision does little to remove the uncertainty that has consumed the White House this week, as Trump cast about for someone to replace chief of staff John Kelly, who is leaving his post at the end of the year.
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It is unclear how long Mulvaney will serve in the role — a senior administration official said there was no time limit, and a source close to Mulvaney confirmed there was no timetable for his exit — and the decision to bring him on in an acting capacity suggests the president may have been running out of options. Six days ago, the president failed to reach an agreement with his first-choice candidate, Nick Ayers, the vice president’s chief of staff, when Ayers wouldn’t agree to serve in the role for two years.
Without a backup plan, however, the president’s bargaining position softened. Though Trump told reporters this week that “over 10” people were vying to be his chief of staff — on Thursday, he indicated the number was five — they have gradually been eliminated or fallen away.
The president told North Carolina congressman Mark Meadows on Wednesday that he was too valuable in the House, where Democrats are set to take control in January. Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, had also expressed reservations about his trustworthiness, according to a source familiar with the conversations.
Then, after taking a train ride to Washington for a face-to-face meeting with the president, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took himself out of the running, announcing it was “not the right time for me or for my family to undertake this serious assignment.” Another contender, former Trump deputy campaign manager David Bossie, lunched with the president on Friday.
For his part, Mulvaney told allies as late as Thursday evening that he wasn’t eager to take the job and didn’t think he’d get it, and he said he expected to learn of the president’s decision on Twitter “like everybody else.”
While Trump’s tweet caught some White House officials off guard, it came after he spent time with Mulvaney Friday afternoon at the White House, where the two had a pre-scheduled meeting to the discuss the federal budget.
“He got picked because the president liked him,” the senior official told reporters. “They get along.”
Asked about why Trump had applied the “acting” tag, the official simply said: “Because that’s what the president wants.”
Mulvaney, who was first floated as a candidate for chief of staff over the summer, is a central player in negotiations with Congress to avert a partial government shutdown. If the president cannot reach an agreement with Congress before next Friday, several agencies will close. That was the subject of Mulvaney’s meeting with the president on Friday.
Shortly after the meeting wrapped, the president said in a series of tweets:
“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. Mick has done an outstanding job while in the Administration…I look forward to working with him in this new capacity as we continue to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
Later Friday, Trump tweeted: “For the record, there were MANY people who wanted to be the White House Chief of Staff. Mick M will do a GREAT job!”
The tweets — guaranteed to upend the weekend news cycle — capped a week of headlines about the chaotic chief of staff search that were compounded by a spate of revelations tied to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
On Wednesday, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, was sentenced to three years in prison for financial fraud and violating campaign finance laws. Cohen accused the president of directing him to break the law during the election by ordering him to buy the silence of two women alleging affairs with Trump in the hopes of protecting the GOP candidate’s presidential bid. Trump has denied the accusation, but the National Enquirer’s publisher, which had a hand in the payments, corroborated Cohen’s account.
Trump has long told associates he wants a chief of staff who is more attuned to politics. Mulvaney, who served three terms in the House before joining the administration, fits that bill, though he remains a controversial figure on Capitol Hill among both Republicans and Democrats.
He is among several OMB directors who have gone on to serve as White House chief of staff, including Leon Panetta in the Clinton administration and Josh Bolten in the George W. Bush administration.
Russell Vought, OMB deputy director, will take over as Trump’s budget chief, a senior official said.
Vought has been one of Mulvaney’s closest advisers in the administration, along with Emma Doyle, Mulvaney’s chief of staff. Mulvaney has also leaned on Jonny Slemrod and Al Simpson, both lobbyists now working outside the administration.
Nancy Cook and Gabby Orr contributed to this report.