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‘Mulvaney needs to learn when to stop talking’: Mick on thin ice after bungled briefing

Mick Mulvaney is on wobbly ground at the White House after the acting chief of staff’s startling news conference, with aides around President Donald Trump waiting for their boss to digest the fallout from his top aide’s bungled explanation of the Ukraine controversy.

Mulvaney is already taking heat from the president’s confidantes, lawyers and GOP lawmakers who were stunned by the performance. White House aides and allies expect the president to reach his own conclusions about Mulvaney later on Friday or in the coming days, as he spends time scanning newspaper headlines, catching up on cable shows and making calls to outside advisers, lawyers and Republican lawmakers.

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Already, one of the president’s closest confidantes, Fox News host Sean Hannity, called Mulvaney’s actions “idiotic” during his radio show Thursday — a message White House aides assume he’ll elaborate on with the president privately. “What is Mulvaney even talking about? I just think he’s dumb, I really do. I don’t even think he knows what he’s talking about. That’s my take on it,” Hannity told his radio listeners.

White House lawyers were similarly aghast that Mulvaney, in a single press conference, undercut so many of the legal arguments they could use to defend the president during the impeachment inquiry, according to a Republican close to the White House.

Republicans lawmakers felt exasperated by the White House’s lack of discipline and coordination. “Mulvaney needs to learn when to stop talking,” a leadership aide told POLITICO. Democrats latched onto Mulvaney’s statements as further evidence of what they consider White House wrongdoing out in the open.

“He was deeply, deeply unhelpful,” said another House GOP aide.

It was a self-inflicted pile-on for the acting chief of staff, whose relationship with the president already had been tenuous and who typically prides himself on his communication skills. It gave Mulvaney’s detractors in the West Wing ammunition to speak ill of him to the president and sideline him even more from the impeachment response and strategy.

“Those who have their knives out for him are happy, but I am not sure what the president’s read on it was. We will know more today,” said one White House official, who described the West Wing as quiet Friday morning following the president’s Dallas rally on Thursday night and the vice president’s late return from Turkey.

Mulvaney’s performance raised questions with Trump allies about whether the White House team was properly prepared to fight impeachment. “There’s growing concern — whether it’s other advisers, whether the legal team is not coordinating and communicating with the rest of the team well enough,” a Republican close to the White House said. “There are questions about who’s doing what and who’s responsible.”

The president’s top spokesperson maintained that it’s business as usual in the building for Mulvaney and the rest of the staff. “This will not affect his role at all,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said. “We all work at the White House as one team.”

Trump on Thursday, asked about the Mulvaney appearance, said he had not seen it yet but told reporters “I have a lot of confidence“ in Mulvaney.

His campaign, borrowing a line from Mulvaney’s press briefing, began selling T-shirts on Friday with the phrase “Get Over It” emblazoned across the front.

“Americans should call their members of Congress and tell them: get over it and get back to work!” campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement accompanying the latest Trump merchandise debut.

Mulvaney has emerged as a key focal point in the Ukraine scandal in recent days through both congressional testimony and reporting. This has given a new, darker sheen to Mulvaney’s West Wing management mantra, “Let Trump be Trump.” In hindsight, his approach appears to have been more of a facilitator, someone who “Helps Trump Be Trump,” said one White House adviser.

Mulvaney was involved in the decision to withhold aid to Ukraine. His national security aide, Robert Blair, reportedly listened in on the president’s July 25 call with the Ukraine president, a conversation which one Mulvaney ally called “appropriate.” A former top national security aide told congressional lawmakers this week that the former National Security Adviser John Bolton had objected to Mulvaney’s involvement in the shadow Ukraine foreign policy spearheaded by Rudy Giuliani, saying, “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up.”

Mulvaney only put himself deeper into the Ukraine scandal on Thursday, when he told reporters at a formal press briefing the president wanted to withhold aid until Ukraine agreed to investigate corruption. Mulvaney later walked back those statements, saying “the president never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server.”

Republican lawmakers were not sold on his about-face.

“It’s not an etch a sketch,” Republican Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida said about Mulvaney’s comments. “It is kind of hard to argue that he didn’t say it, right? if I understood it correctly, he basically cleared up what was a matter of some vagueness that he basically said it was a quid pro quo.”

“You don’t hold up foreign aid that we had previously appropriated for a political initiative. Period,” added Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Nor were lawyers. The White House counsel’s office, the Department of Justice and the president’s private lawyer Jay Sekulow all quickly distanced themselves publicly and privately from Mulvaney. Sekulow made it publicly clear he was not consulted, saying in a statement, “The President’s legal counsel was not involved in acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s press briefing.”

“From a legal standpoint, the entire defense is totally shattered by Mulvaney’s admission,” said a Republican close to the White House. “It like admitting guilt and then saying, ‘It’s just not that serious.’”

A former administration official said the entire episode could have been avoided if the president wasn’t so paranoid about his closest aides and advisers. Though it was unclear if Mulvaney volunteered to conduct the briefing — which began with him announcing the location of next year’s G-7 summit — or if he was personally asked to get in front of the cameras, the official said Trump was undoubtedly monitoring his chief of staff’s performance.

“Make no mistake: This was a loyalty test for Mick,” the former official said. “We’ll find out soon enough if he passed or failed.”

Others warned that Mulvaney became a walking target on Thursday in the event that Trump — who just this week dismissed his former defense secretary, Jim Mattis, as “overrated” — begins searching for a fall guy. The president’s relationship with his top aide has rarely been seamless and has only grown worse in recent weeks as Mulvaney’s West Wing colleagues have questioned whether he’s equipped to guide the White House through impeachment and the near-universal outrage over Trump’s abrupt decision last week to pull U.S. troops away from the Turkey-Syria border.

“He’s a stressed president right now and he’s going to take it out on people,” said a person close to Mulvaney, who suggested that Trump has no reason to be concerned about the former congressman’s fealty.

“If Trump said, ‘I need you to be the fall guy,’ he would probably say, ‘fine,‘” the person said.

Melanie Zanona and Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.


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