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Mulvaney eggs Trump on in shutdown fight

White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney is among the top officials counseling President Donald Trump to reject any short-term funding bill to re-open the Department of Homeland Security. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

White House

Days after replacing John Kelly, the president’s new chief of staff is already putting a personal stamp on the role.

President Donald Trump’s new acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, is already putting his stamp on the West Wing after just a few days on the job.

While his recently departed predecessor, Gen. John Kelly, often tried to restrain President Donald Trump, Mulvaney — who has said he won’t seek to be a check on the impulsive president — has been egging on the president in his confrontation with congressional Democrats over a border wall.

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Mulvaney is among the top officials counseling Trump to reject any short-term funding bill to re-open the Department of Homeland Security, the agency responsible for constructing the president’s long-desired border wall, said one source close to Mulvaney and one administration official. That position has made many congressional Republican leaders nervous even as it thrills Trump’s conservative base.

Mulvaney “views his role as reminding the president this is a bad deal,” said the person close to Mulvaney. “Democrats would like to try to increase spending on anything but the wall.”

This posture could mean the government shutdown continues for days or even weeks, as Trump doubles down on his 2016 campaign promise to secure at least $ 5 billion dollars to build some type of structure along the southern border — presenting Mulvaney with his first major challenge as chief.

Mulvaney took over unceremoniously on Jan. 2, with no speeches or fanfare. That was a contrast to his predecessor. Upon being thrust into the chief of staff job in July 2017, Kelly convened White House employees in the nearby Eisenhower Executive Office Building for a speech designed to boost morale and establish his authority.

But Mulvaney served as one of the president’s few companions in what Trump himself described as an empty and lonely White House over the holidays, working out of the West Wing when most White House aides were on vacation or furloughed as part of the partial shutdown Trump has precipitated.

And even as Mulvaney was defending Trump’s demand for a border wall over the holidays, in private and on TV talk shows, Kelly seemed to undercut his former boss’s hardline position in a newspaper interview in which he suggested that Trump has actually backed away from building a physical wall along the border. (That prompted Trump to tweet defensively on New Year’s Eve that he had never “abandoned” plans for a border wall.)

During a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Wednesday, and again in a surprise White House briefing room appearance Thursday afternoon, Trump indicated the shutdown would last as long as it takes for Democrats to yield to his demands. Trump has tried to blame Democrats for refusing to fund border security, even though the government’s partial shutdown started on Dec. 22 under a Republican-controlled Congress and White House.

“What we’re asking for is the fact that [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi wants to fund a long-term appropriations for eight of the agencies — DHS is part of the federal government. They should be able to be funded as well,” Mercedes Schlapp, White House director of strategic communications, told reporters at the White House on Thursday.

In the weeks before the shutdown, Mulvaney — who also oversees budget issues as Trump’s Office of Management and Budget director — had been hunting for federal dollars that could be re-directed toward funding the border wall. It is not clear whether that might provide a solution to the shutdown impasse, said one administration official. Democrats have warned the White House against reallocating money Congress has appropriated for other purposes.

Mulvaney presented some of those ideas to Trump in a series of three private meetings in the Oval Office and residence, according to administration officials. During their final meeting, Trump abruptly offered him the acting chief of staff position, which the president had been struggling to fill after Kelly’s famously rocky tenure.

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney at a Cabinet meeting in the White House.

That following week, Mulvaney began to shadow Kelly around the White House, hanging out in the West Wing and quizzing staffers about their duties. He was even slated to travel to Mar-a-Lago with Trump on Air Force One on Dec. 21, until the White House scrapped those travel plans amid the imminent government shutdown.

Since then, Mulvaney and the handful of staffers he imported with him from the OMB to the White House have moved into West Wing offices. He effectively took over the chief-of-staff duties in the days leading up to Christmas, as Kelly took vacation and then departed the White House formally on Jan. 2.

By then, Mulvaney had already hit the television circuit to defend Trump’s border wall demands. In a Dec. 23 interview with ABC News’ Jonathan Karl, Mulvaney even insisted that Trump, in asking for billions in federal dollars for the wall along the southern U.S. border, was not breaking his oft-repeated campaign promise to make Mexico pay for the barrier.

Thanks to changes the Trump administration negotiated to the NAFTA trade deal last year, Mulvaney explained, “American workers are going to do better, the government is going to do better, and you could make the argument that Mexico is paying for it in that fashion.”

One former administration official described Mulvaney’s leadership style as accessible without being overbearing. That has played out over the past two days as he attended a Cabinet meeting and negotiating session with congressional leaders before visiting the House floor on Thursday to watch Pelosi again become the Democratic speaker of the House. He seemed to be everywhere without necessarily projecting military-style discipline, as Kelly sought to do early in his tenure.

Mulvaney is not expected to make any major personnel changes to the White House in the coming weeks, apart from parting ways with Zachary Fuentes, a longtime ally of Kelly’s who, until recently, served as a White House deputy chief of staff.

On Jan. 2, Fuentes’ White House title changed to assistant to the president and senior adviser to the chief of staff — a reflection of his expected exit from the White House. Mulvaney’s long-time aide Emma Doyle assumes the title of deputy chief-of-staff.

President Trump has surprise press conference about border wall

Fuentes kicked up some controversy in late December when he became the subject of an unflattering and detailed New York Times story after he reportedly told White House colleagues that, after Kelly’s departure, he intended to “hide out” in an office building adjacent to the West Wing and remain on the payroll until the spring when he would take advantage of an early retirement program from the Coast Guard.

When asked about that article during his interview with ABC, Mulvaney said: “Donald Trump doesn’t let people sit around and do nothing for six months. So Zach’s a good man, we’ll find something for him to do productive.”

A senior administration official confirmed Fuentes will depart in the coming weeks or months, but in the meantime, he is helping Mulvaney and Doyle transition and settle into the West Wing.

More immediately, Mulvaney must contend with the ongoing machinations of the government shutdown, his third since he joined the Trump administration.

This Friday, Democratic leaders including Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are expected to visit the White House to resume negotiations. Meanwhile, Pelosi has said she plans to bring forward a package to re-open all parts of the federal government based on legislation Republicans have supported in the past.

If the shutdown slips until next week as many officials expect, the pressure to reach a deal on both sides will increase, administration officials privately say — especially if federal workers miss their next paycheck on Friday, Jan. 11 during what will be Mulvaney’s second week on the job.

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