‘Cult-Like’ Atmosphere Pervades White House
Mick Mulvaney gave one of the worst press conference performances ever last week, then continued to compound the problem with an appearance on Fox News Sunday.
His briefing showed that an almost cult-like atmosphere pervades the White House and deludes even high-level staff, said Christopher Whipple, author of The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, in an interview with The American Conservative.
“In the annals of disastrous appearances by White House chiefs of staff,” Mulvaney’s Thursday press briefing was “in a league of its own,” said Whipple. “We have known for a long time that Trump is incapable of seeing a difference between his personal interests and his private interests…but it’s striking that Mulvaney would buy into the notion that Trump is the country and the country is Trump. It’s almost a cult worthy of Jonestown.”
“What Trump has done is indefensible, so it seems Mulvaney and his staff’s strategy is to pretend it’s normal,” Whipple added. “If Trump does it, then it’s fine—get over it.”
This strategy does not serve the president well, of course.
“The most important duty of the White House chief of staff is to tell the president what he does not want to hear,” said Whipple. “Mulvaney’s just thrown that to the wind and decided to be a sycophant.”
At the briefing, which was ostensibly to defend Trump from accusations of self-dealing after his decision to hold the G7 at his Doral property, reporters wanted to know whether the congressionally allocated military aid to Ukraine had been held up in an effort to compel an investigation of Democrats for alleged corruption.
In the space of a few short minutes, Mulvaney admitted exactly that:
Mulvaney: “Did [Trump] also mention to me, in the past, the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money…. The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation. And that is absolutely appropriate.”
ABC News Correspondent Jonathan Karl: “To be clear, what you just described is a quid pro quo. It is: funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democratic server happens as well.”
Mulvaney: “We do that all the time with foreign policy…. This speaks to an important point…. McKinney said yesterday that he was really upset with the political influence in foreign policy. That was one of the reasons he was so upset about this. And I have news for everybody: get over it.”
“There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy. …That is going to happen,” Mulvaney said. “Elections have consequences.”
It’s small wonder that Trump’s Department of Justice quickly distanced itself from Mulvaney’s statement.
“If the White House was withholding aid in regards to the cooperation of any investigation at the Department of Justice, that is news to us,” a DOJ official told the Washington Examiner.
Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow reacted with a one-sentence statement: “The President’s legal counsel was not involved in acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s press briefing.”
Mulvaney spoke to reporters without having been briefed by the legal team, and based on other admissions he made, he didn’t seem to have been prepped by a competent press staff either. The rumors that he’s been feuding with White House counsel Pat Cipollone only bolsters the perception that the White House is completely, dangerously dysfunctional.
“It was malpractice to send him out there, given his lack of experience, lack of skills and a clear lack of preparation,” said Joe Lockhart, President Bill Clinton’s former press secretary and no stranger to impeachment questions.
The White House press room is the “reddest, hottest room on Earth and you don’t take that podium unless you’re aware of every implication of every word, every sentence that you say,” said former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.
Further compounding his media missteps, Mulvaney then went on Fox News Sunday to say he didn’t say what he’d said, even as the Trump campaign began selling shirts with the words “get over it.”
“Again, that’s not what I said, that’s what people said I said,” Mulvaney told Chris Wallace.
Wallace then played the tape and went back and forth with Mulvaney for several minutes.
“I hate to go through this but you said what you said,” said Wallace. “You said what you said, and the fact is, after that exchange with Jonathan Karl, you were asked another time why the aid was held up. What was the condition for the aid? And you didn’t mention two conditions, you mentioned three conditions.”
Mulvaney also defended Trump’s choice to use his own resort as the meeting place for the G7 in the worst way possible: “At the end of the day, he still considers himself to be in the hospitality business.”
“I just have to pick up: you say he considers himself in the hospitality business?” Wallace asked. “He’s the president of the United States.”
One of Trump’s advisers called the interview “self-immolation.”
In reality, it is not the job of the chief of staff to appear on camera and defend the president. The most effective chiefs leave media to the press secretary and do their best to be seen and not heard. A successful chief of staff is a gatekeeper who heavily influences who the president sees, what the president reads, and what advice the president listens to.
Jim Baker, chief of staff to Ronald Reagan, represents the “gold standard” of chiefs because he was an honest broker, according to Whipple. Baker was always candid in his advice to Reagan, and he didn’t care if he was hated for his pragmatism. Reagan wanted to get legislation passed, and he knew that compromise, and an empowered chief of staff, were necessary.
Mulvaney, on the other hand, has said that his strategy as chief is to let Trump be Trump, which “is a prescription for disaster,” said Whipple.
When he took over from John Kelly, Mulvaney famously adopted a more hands-off approach than the former general, allowing easy access to the Oval Office. This lack of process is clearly a cost of having someone with no understanding of his job in the chief position.
“One thing I do give him credit for, he covered himself,” said Lockhart. “He was very clear that anything he did on Ukraine was at the direction of the president.”
Within the White House, the cult-like delusion continues unphased by poor media performances. On Monday morning, Mulvaney received a round of applause from senior aides, according to CNN. On Tuesday night, Trump tweeted that word he was sounding out someone to replace Mulvaney was “fake news.”
Barbara Boland is The American Conservative’s foreign policy and national security reporter. Follow her on Twitter @BBatDC.