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Mulvaney getting second-guessed on his defense of Trump

Mulvaney said Trump “still considers himself to be in the hospitality business.”
White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney announces that the G7 will be held at Trump National Doral, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Washington. [EVAN VUCCI  |  AP]
White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney announces that the G7 will be held at Trump National Doral, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Washington. [EVAN VUCCI | AP]
Published Oct. 21, 2019

WASHINGTON — For Mick Mulvaney, the hits just keep on coming.

First, President Donald Trump's acting chief of staff stirred up a tempest by acknowledging that the administration had held up aid to Ukraine in part to prod that country to investigate Democrats and the 2016 elections. Then Mulvaney went on television Sunday to defend his boss in effusive terms — and ended up making a new problematic comment.

Explaining why Trump had tried to steer an international summit to one of the president's own properties before giving up on the idea, Mulvaney said Trump "still considers himself to be in the hospitality business." That did nothing to allay concerns that the Republican president has used his office to enrich his business interests.

The bookended performances over the span of a few days were panned by the president's allies and cast doubt on Mulvaney's job security at the White House.

Mulvaney denied on "Fox News Sunday" that there was any consideration of his resignation, "Absolutely, positively not."

At a press conference on Thursday, Mulvaney tried to put a positive spin on Trump’s selection of his Doral, Florida, golf resort to host next year’s Group of Seven world summit. It was also an opportunity for Mulvaney to demonstrate his ability to defend the president.

He struggled, in the process offering fresh fodder to critics of a president already besieged by an impeachment inquiry. He asserted in the briefing that military aid to Ukraine was delayed partly because Trump wanted officials there to look into a security company hired by the Democratic National Committee that discovered that Russian agents had broken into the committee's network in 2016.

"The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation," Mulvaney told reporters. "Did he also mention to me in the past the corruption that related to the DNC server? Absolutely, no question about that." Mulvaney continued: "That's why we held up the money." Trump's personal lawyers quickly dissociated themselves from the chief of staff's comments.

Mulvaney's description of the administration's handling of the Ukraine aid amounted to a quid pro quo, though he later claimed his comments had been misconstrued.

"That's not what I said," Mulvaney told "Fox News Sunday" as host Chris Wallace repeatedly confronted him with his own comments. "That's what people said that I said."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to defend the comments in an interview Sunday with ABC's "This Week."

"I will leave to the chief of staff to explain what it is he said and what he intended," Pompeo said.

Mulvaney is unaware of any effort to replace him, according to a person close to him who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. The president has also expressed his support for Mulvaney to the acting chief of staff's team, the person said. Press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Sunday afternoon that Mulvaney still has the confidence of the president.

The news conference on Thursday left aides in the West Wing dumbfounded at the former South Carolina congressman's performance and some quarters of Trump's orbit — the Justice Department and Trump's personal attorney, among them — dissociating themselves from his account. The president himself, already angry that Republicans were not defending him on Syria and Doral, was also displeased that Mulvaney only made the headlines worse, according to three White House officials and Republicans close to the White House not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.

Still, a swift dismissal doesn’t appear on the horizon, according to nine staffers and outside advisers, who noted the difficulties Trump has faced attracting and retaining high-quality White House staff even before the impeachment episode. The shortage of viable replacements has kept other officials in their posts months after he soured on them.

Even before Democrats launched the impeachment inquiry, Mulvaney was on thin ice, with diminished status in the White House. Holding the job of acting chief of staff since January, Mulvaney has frustrated aides who saw him as less willing than his predecessors to challenge the president.

Once Democrats began investigations meant to remove Trump from office, Mulvaney drew the brunt of criticism from presidential allies who felt the White House wasn't prepared to fight back forcefully.

He has also clashed with White House counsel Pat Cipollone, sometimes mentioned as a potential Mulvaney successor, over strategy and tactics in response to impeachment. Mulvaney has complained that he had been iced out of the process, which the lawyer was treating as a legal, not political, matter.

Trump's decision late Saturday to reverse course on his much-criticized plan to host the G-7 at Doral was the latest move that called into question Mulvaney's job security.

Mulvaney had insisted that White House staff concluded that Doral was "far and away the best physical facility" and tried to push back at concerns raised by Democrats and some Republicans that Trump was using the presidency to enrich himself.

Mulvaney said Sunday that Trump was "honestly surprised at the level of pushback" on his choice of Doral.

That notion struck some Trump allies as hollow because the uproar was resounding in August when the president first floated the idea of choosing Doral. They argued that the president’s aides, Mulvaney first among them, either should have persuaded him not to hold it there or devised a better communications strategy.

“Could we have put on an excellent G-7 at Doral? Absolutely,” Mulvaney concluded on Fox. “Will we end up putting on an excellent G-7 someplace else? Yes, we will.”

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