Months before Mick Mulvaney was picked as President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff, he requested a meeting with Trump to sell himself as the best man to run his chaotic White House.
Mulvaney boiled his case down to three main points. First, he reminded Trump that he’d spent the previous two years successfully managing two federal agencies, the Office of Management and Budget and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, with almost no dysfunction. Secondly, he said he had demonstrated fierce loyalty to the President.
Mulvaney saved what he thought was the most important point for last: he had no plans to rein Trump in, according to a person familiar with Mulvaney’s ideas.
The pitch provides a window into how Mulvaney has approached the job as Trump’s third chief of staff. White House aides say Mulvaney has staked out a clear strategy of avoiding friction with the President or his family.
That’s won Mulvaney praise from senior staff and helped him avoid the internal battles that contributed to the eventual downfall of his two predecessors, Reince Priebus and John Kelly.
But the approach has its downsides. Namely, critics say, Mulvaney has failed to perform what many past chiefs regard as the most important part of the job: focusing the President’s time on critical issues, managing the information that reaches his desk, and in the case of Trump, serving as a guardrail against an unpredictable president’s most self-defeating instincts.
A senior White House official, who praised Mulvaney’s leadership overall, described Mulvaney’s approach to dealing with Trump as focused primarily on securing the President’s affection, even if it sometimes means obscuring hard truths.
“If Mick is guilty of anything, it’s that he’s more of a glass half full kind of guy,” said John Czwartacki, senior adviser to Mulvaney for strategy. “It doesn’t mean he ever obscures facts but he tends to view the world through an optimist point of view.”
In light of the recently released Mueller report, being too deferential to Trump could carry some significant risks. The report lays out numerous occasions of aides refusing to do as Trump instructed, provoking the President’s ire but also saving him from potentially incriminating and obstructive behavior.
“You have to be able to ensure that the President is in many ways protected from himself,” said Leon Panetta, who spent three years as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and who is also close to former chief of staff John Kelly. “Otherwise you’re not worth a damn if you’re not protecting the county.”
“You’re not hired to be a court jester to a king, you’re hired to serve the country,” Panetta added.
To others though, that misses the point of Mulvaney’s strategy, and the uniqueness of working for this President.
“Trump has a unique management style and if you get how he operates then you can function better than some of the guys who came in and thought I’m going to get this job and do whatever I want because the world loves me and I was elected to nothing,” said Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative policy group.
The anti-John Kelly
Much of Mulvaney’s tenure has been defined by how much of Kelly’s management strategies he has rejected. In an interview with The Atlantic, Mulvaney sharply criticized Kelly for cultivating an unhealthy work environment.
“When I got here, morale wasn’t what it needed to be,” Mulvaney told the magazine. “I don’t think I’m telling any secrets – John hated the job. And let everybody know.”
But Panetta, who has spoken to Kelly in recent weeks, said the former Marine general was simply being honest about the challenges of the job.
“That job under Trump is a son of a b****,” Panetta said. “(Kelly) believes in discipline. He believes you don’t accomplish a mission unless you have a disciplined force.
“It took a while but he realized he was dealing with someone who was totally undisciplined,” Panetta added.
Trump aides say the most noticeable difference has been the way Mulvaney deals with the President’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Where Kelly tried to limit their access and influence, Mulvaney has essentially stayed out of their way, a move that many in the West Wing attribute to Mulvaney watching the political damage Kelly did to himself in his fights with Ivanka and Kushner.
“(Mulvaney) has the benefit of hindsight to know that is going to piss off the President and make enemies of the only staffers in the White House who can’t get fired,” said one White House official.
Not only has Mulvaney not interfered with Ivanka and Kushner’s access to the Oval Office, he has allowed them to expand their portfolios.
In recent months, for example, Kushner along with Mulvaney were among the President’s lead negotiators during the government shutdown and have continued talks with Democrats about immigration legislation even after the President escalated his threats to close the southern border with Mexico.
Rather than rein them in, aides say Mulvaney has opted instead to use Ivanka Trump and Kushner’s unique relationship with the President to his own advantage.
While one official described Mulvaney as seeking to “empower” the two senior aides for their own benefit, others in the White House see it as a shrewd move designed to keep him in his job longer.
Peace but no progress
Regardless of the motivation, multiple Trump aides describe the mood among staff as unusually content under Mulvaney’s leadership.
Several say that the infighting and back-biting that characterized the first two years of Trump’s presidency has dissipated. While Kelly’s attempts to instill discipline and order into the West Wing gained him a reputation as being combative, Mulvaney’s under-the-radar demeanor have made him relatively few enemies in a staff more accustomed to the power struggles of Trump’s first two years in office.
Yet for all the peace, there have been few accomplishments. In the first four months of Mulvaney’s tenure, there have been no major policy or public relations successes. And several political missteps. Mulvaney has presided over the longest government shutdown in history, which most polls say the American public blames Trump for, a threat to close the US border with Mexico which likely would have caused catastrophic economic damage, and a near crisis of Trump’s making when he – with Mulvaney’s encouragement – forced health care onto the Republican agenda, over the objections of his party.
Paradoxically, as Mulvaney’s public image has soured, his standing with Trump has solidified, according to White House officials and sources close to the president.
“I think he’s the perfect fit for the President,” said Christopher Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax and a longtime friend of Trump. “He gives the President his space and lets him shine and he protects his back.”
Though people close to the President say that it is still early in Mulvaney’s tenure, Trump is notably more relaxed around the former congressman, who has been careful not to make the President think he is being watched or monitored.
“He doesn’t like people shadowing him all the time,” said one person close to Trump.
Trump’s level of comfort with Mulvaney was on display in recent days, when hours after the Mueller report was released, they dined together along with their wives at Mar-a-Lago, according to multiple sources.
In his short time as acting chief of staff, Mulvaney has traveled frequently with the President to his Florida club – making himself a notable, but unobtrusive presence as the President catches up with friends and patrons.
Shortly after Mulvaney got the job, amidst a tumultuous period during the government shutdown, Trump – who is known to blame top aides for rocky periods in his presidency – quizzed friends and advisers about how Mulvaney was doing.
Upon receiving positive feedback, Trump remarked: “I think he’s good, too. He’s better than the other two.”
Mulvaney also comes to the job with policy expertise that both Priebus and Kelly lacked. Among the three, Mulvaney is also the only to have ever been elected to office. Before joining the administration in 2017, Mulvaney served three terms as a House Republican, focused on cutting government spending. That, along with his time as Trump’s budget director, have won Mulvaney a reputation as a policy wonk in what is often a detail-averse White House.
In meetings with the President, Trump often uses Mulvaney as a walking encyclopedia, asking him to weigh in with facts and information in discussions with lawmakers and allies on policy.
Mulvaney has filled the West Wing with like-minded technocrats, many of whom he brought over from the OMB. That’s given Mulvaney a core group of loyal allies in the West Wing, as well as a base of policy expertise to help advance the sort of right-leaning agenda that he might have favored during his time as a member of the House Freedom Caucus.
Mulvaney allies now fill key roles at the helm of the Office of Management and Budget and the Domestic Policy Council, helping him shape Trump’s policy on across the board budget cut proposals and on health care.
Last month, Mulvaney, backed by acting Office of Management and Budget director Russ Vought and Domestic Policy Council Director Joe Grogan convinced Trump to back a lawsuit by states attorneys general seeking to invalidate the Affordable Care Act, over the objections of Attorney General William Barr and Health and Human Services Secretary.
Though Senate Republicans ultimately convinced the White House to stand down on pushing an overhaul of health care until after the 2020 election, the incident highlighted the unusual power Mulvaney wields over key policy decisions, something Kelly, who never served as a politician or political aide, ever attempted.
Indeed, Trump, lurching from urge to urge, has plunged the White House into conflict with Capitol Hill over health care and the ideas of closing the southern border.
Trump’s health care decision forced congressional Republicans head-first into a health care fight they didn’t want. And Trump’s threats to close the US Mexico-border, which Mulvaney doubled down on in Sunday morning television appearances days after Trump floated the possibility, had to be walked back less than a week later.
Mulvaney has not made it his business to dissuade the president in any of these cases.
He is “banking that this a president willing to be bold even if it doesn’t work,” another White House official said.
Other aides believe the policy missteps and lack of coordination during Mulvaney’s time as chief of staff have less to do with him and more with the president.
“Mick did go in with eyes wide open. You can’t try to limit what the President’s going to do,” said a different official said. “You can provide options but ultimately, he’s going to say and do what he wants.”
This story has been updated with comments from Mulvaney’s senior adviser for strategy, John Czwartacki
CNN’s Sarah Westwod contributed to this report