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.
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 very quiet Friday morning following the president’s Dallas rally on Thursday night and the vice president’s late return from Turkey.
The White House press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 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.
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.”
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.’”
Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.