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Trump is tiring of Mulvaney

Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney has been increasingly the subject of President Donald Trump’s irritation, revealing a slow deterioration of their relationship. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

White House

But the president is unlikely to replace his acting chief of staff for the foreseeable future, because finding a fourth chief of staff would be a heavy lift.

Updated

President Donald Trump’s honeymoon period with Mick Mulvaney is coming to an end.

In recent weeks, Trump has been snapping at his acting chief of staff with some frequency, and expressing greater frustration with him than usual, according to four current and former senior administration officials.

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Trump has long said that he prefers the flexibility offered by temporary titles, but Mulvaney’s ongoing “acting” status underscores the uphill battle he faces as Trump’s third chief of staff in less than two-and-a-half years. While Mulvaney is not in danger of losing his job any time soon, officials stressed, Trump’s treatment of him still signals to aides the slow deterioration of their relationship has begun.

One White House official called it “inevitable since any chief of staff has to deliver both the good and bad news,” and this president does not like hearing the latter. Other senior administration officials said Trump gets annoyed with almost everyone apart from family members, so measuring someone’s internal standing by how often Trump speaks sharply to him or her is futile.

But speculation about Mulvaney’s standing with Trump jumped into the public eye earlier this month when the president called out his acting chief of staff for coughing during an interview with ABC News. Even though some saw the incident as reflective of Trump’s general disdain for germs, others viewed it as Trump’s private vexation spilling over.

“The president doesn’t have any good reason to dislike Mulvaney in terms of him being disloyal,” said one Republican close to the White House. Still, the Republican added that the president has asked people in recent months what kind of leadership they think Mulvaney is offering in the West Wing and the value he is adding, often a sign the president is souring on a staffer.

More broadly, several staffers have begun to murmur about Mulvaney’s approach to the job, arguing he’s grown too accustomed to the trappings of White House power. Mulvaney and his top aides have stacked the West Wing so far with 11 loyal staffers from the Office of Management and Budget, where he previously worked. Additionally, he has used Camp David — typically a getaway spot for presidents, not staffers — to host three different retreats with White House senior staff, top health care officials and congressional lawmakers. This, combined with his tendency to load up Air Force One trips with favored administration aides, has made him a target of criticism among some West Wing staff.

Mulvaney’s public criticism of his predecessors like John Kelly has also grated on some staffers. Kelly was not popular among West Wing aides by the end, but staffers still consider Mulvaney’s recent barbs unnecessary.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did not respond to calls and an email request for comment. Mulvaney, through a top aide, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite the frustrations with Mulvaney, Trump is unlikely to replace him for the foreseeable future, several aides said. Ultimately, the president likes the hands-off approach Mulvaney has taken to his schedule, whims and decision-making style. More importantly, Trump is wary to embark on another chief of staff search after the last one played out in the press over several days with two top candidates turning down offers and a raft of negative headlines.

And the conflict-averse president would never tell Mulvaney to his face that he is annoyed, aides said. Instead, Trump shows his frustration by polling staffers and friends about the person, or by making little digs at them. Trump does this either to signal his waning affection, or to assert his dominance over an ally or staffer who Trump feels has gotten too big for his britches, according to two former senior administration officials.

Some staffers thought the verbal reprimand Trump delivered to Mulvaney for coughing was an example of this type of behavior.

Labeled “Coughgate” by some in the Trump orbit, the TV clip showed the president asking his acting chief of staff to leave the room if he needed to cough again. “You just can’t, you just can’t cough,” Trump said toward Mulvaney as he shook his head.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Mick Mulvaney, Donald Trump

Despite President Donald Trump’s frustration with acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, aides say he is not likely to fire Mulvaney any time soon. | Evan Vucci/AP Photo

Some Trump allies felt the tone represented the public airing of Trump’s newfound irritation with his acting chief, while others saw it as common practice for the president and germaphobe who does not like shaking hands or being around sick staffers. He doesn’t even like it if people sneeze around him, said one White House aide.

Adding to the percolating Mulvaney backlash are his mixed reviews in steering the White House on policy matters.

Although Mulvaney has long cultivated a reputation as a policy wonk in Washington, Senate Republicans have not enjoyed negotiating directly with him to try to reach a deal on a looming budget showdown. With deadlines rapidly approaching this fall, the two sides have yet to make significant progress toward an agreement to raise the debt ceiling and lift stiff spending caps.

And Mulvaney’s guidance to Trump during the federal government shutdown in late December and January to win border wall funding was widely seen as politically harmful to the White House and Republicans — as was Mulvaney’s eventual move to declare a national emergency to try to bypass Congress for wall funds.

Republicans similarly did not like it when Trump pivoted back to trying to repeal Obamacare this spring after the Republicans’ ill-fated efforts to repeal and replace the law during the president’s first year in office. GOP lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, were irked that Mulvaney had allowed Trump to steer into an issue they felt had damaged the party ahead of the 2018 midterms.

Being Trump’s chief of staff has always been viewed as a semi-thankless job, no matter how one approaches it. Trump demands loyalty from everyone around him but never really returns it, staffers say, and he’s churned through three chiefs of staff in under three years — along with a long list of other top officials like national security adviser, communications director and deputy chief of staff.

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