Special: White House chief of staff search

Dec. 14, 2018 AT 9:54 p.m. EST

The White House chief of staff job has traditionally been seen as one of the best jobs in Washington, but these days, there is nothing traditional about the world of politics. Panelists discuss President Trump’s decision to appoint Mick Mulvaney, the Office of Management and Budget director, as acting White House chief of staff.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Podcast. Today we take a closer look at President Trump’s search for the next White House chief of staff.

Joining me, NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker, CNN White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny, and Washington Post White House reporter and CNN analyst Seung Min Kim.

For those in the political world the White House chief of staff job has traditionally been seen as one of the best posts in Washington, but these days there is nothing traditional about the world of politics. President Trump announced last week that General John Kelly would be stepping down by the end of the year, but the president did not immediately name his replacement. Nick Ayers, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, came close to taking the job, but he declined. Several more names were then floated as successors: former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Trump’s former deputy campaign manager David Bossie, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, along with even Assistant to the President Johnny DeStefano.

Every name in the book seemed to be floating to reporters this week, but on Friday President Trump announced Mulvaney would step in as acting chief of staff. He’s currently the acting director – he just recently served as the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. As well, he’s the current director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Seung Min, Mulvaney out of the blue through a tweet. What does that tell us about President Trump? Is he just here in mid-December trying to make a decision, get this search process a little bit more quieter for a full-time replacement?

SEUNG MIN KIM: Well, it’s interesting how earlier in the week it looked like Mick Mulvaney had kind of quietly taken himself out of the running, indicating that he wasn’t interested, but the president had seen so many bad headlines over the course of these last weeks declaring just how many people had essentially turned him down for the chief of staff job. So right after five p.m. tonight he, you know, announced Mulvaney as the pick. And also, he felt compelled to go a little bit after that tweet saying, for the record there was – there were a lot of people interested in that job. So you could tell the negative coverage was getting under his skin a little bit there.

MR. COSTA: Kristen, what was the scene like this week at the White House as they went from Nick Ayers to this big search to Mulvaney? How did you track that whole evolution?

KRISTEN WELKER: Well, I think there was this scramble. There was this assumption that it would work out with Nick Ayers. It didn’t. The talks fell apart. He wanted to stay there for two years, or the president wanted him to. He didn’t want to commit to that timeline. He wanted hiring and firing responsibilities, and they just couldn’t get on the same page. And so I think the president was left feeling flat-footed, and he was – frankly, felt to some extent embarrassed. We are told he was desperate to change the storyline, the fact that you had various people dropping out – Meadows, Christie. He wanted to put someone in place. So that is significant. I also think – think about the timing of this. This comes amid these daily developments in the Russia investigation. He wants someone there at the helm to help him navigate that. Given that Mulvaney is a former congressman, he has a unique, I think, understanding of how Capitol Hill operates, and that’s going to be critical moving forward.

MR. COSTA: Jeff, you have a former congressman in Mulvaney, someone who knows the White House. At the same time, does President Trump at some level want to be his own chief of staff?

JEFF ZELENY: No question, and his own press secretary, and his own communications director, and essentially everything. So I think that it doesn’t necessarily matter who is in that office. Just to give people a sense, the best real estate outside the Oval Office is, in fact, the chief of staff’s office. It’s in the corner of the West Wing, a fireplace, a balcony outside. It’s the only office with outdoor space like that. It’s just about 10 or 15 steps from the Oval Office. They can see who’s going in and who’s going out. There is no essential traditional role of the gatekeeper for President Trump. He calls people at all hours. He largely works out of the residence of the White House. So that chief of staff real estate is not nearly as good as it used to be, and that’s a metaphor for it is not the same job. So whoever takes this position, they largely are there to try and control the staff, not the president, and that is a big job no question about it.

But the president was clearly wounded and stung by all of these headlines that people were turning him down. So initially he said a couple days ago, you know, we can wait a couple weeks; that was only 48 hours ago, so he clearly wanted to make this kind of abrupt move. I’m not sure it matters who is in that position. You saw the smiling John Kelly with his arm around Reince Priebus – (laughter) – at a holiday party on Thursday at the White House. Those two are not friends at all, but they do have something in common now: they are now the fraternity, people who – former chiefs of staff. And Mick Mulvaney at some point sooner or later will end up there as well.

MR. COSTA: What about the role, Seung Min, of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor, and the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump? They seem to hover over a lot of these discussions. Do they – do they want Mulvaney in there as acting chief? Are they trying to increase their own role, or not?

MS. KIM: Well, it was fascinating when the Chris Christie boomlet happened, we know Christie’s role, particularly directly with Jared Kushner and his father.

MR. COSTA: He prosecuted Charles Kushner as U.S. attorney.

MS. KIM: Correct, he – and that’s actually what led Jared to push his biggest project yet, which is criminal justice reform. But it really does show the power of the Trump kids in the White House. And while – whether they favored Mulvaney or not, I think, will wait. The other interesting thing about Mulvaney too is that while he does know Capitol Hill very well, he doesn’t have a lot of great relationships on Capitol Hill because when he was a congressman he was a member of that confrontational House Freedom Caucus, who drove the House Republican leadership crazy.

Speaker Paul Ryan had a very warm, gracious comment when John Kelly’s formal departure was announced. He most likely would not have similar words for Mulvaney. (Laughter.) And Democrats are already pointing to the fact that Mulvaney had very – has endorsed very confrontational tactics in terms of a shutdown during his time on Capitol Hill. And I mean, how does that – does that Mulvaney get in the president’s ear? We don’t know. It’ll be interesting to watch.

MS. WELKER: I think the president feels as though his confrontational tactics could potentially be an asset. Again, this is a White House, this a president that is bracing for a fight, potentially to go on a war footing, as the president said, depending on how many investigations House Democrats launch in the new year, depending on how many subpoenas they issue. So I think that that’s one of the assets that President Trump is hoping for. But, again, I think Jeff’s point is significant. This is a president who is largely running his own show. And so the chief of staff is a partner in that, but not necessarily the leading character.

MR. ZELENY: And the chief of staff, regardless of who it is, they are not going to be able to control the next meeting with Pelosi, Schumer and the president.

MS. WELKER: That’s right.

MR. ZELENY: They’re going to a bystander there, as John Kelly was, in the room. So I think that the – and the Democrats in the wake of the announcement weren’t necessarily congratulating Mick Mulvaney. They said, oh, he’s the architect of the last budget shutdown. So not someone – but the job, though, is also working with all branches of the government, with the Pentagon most importantly. That’s the relationship I’m looking for. What is his relationship with Jim Mattis, who’s now sort of standing alone as the general – really the last standing general of the president’s – you know, when he was coming out of his election. So that is more interesting, perhaps, than his congressional relationship.

MS. WELKER: I think it’s also interesting that this is an acting role. I mean, don’t forget, this is not permanent.

MR. COSTA: Do you believe that?

MR. ZELENY: Which is really weird, actually. Isn’t that diminishing, though, to Mick Mulvaney?

MS. WELKER: Well, it is diminishing.

MR. COSTA: Well, maybe it becomes permanent.

MS. WELKER: It may become permanent, but both sides sort of giving themselves a way out. Now, our sources telling us, actually, Mick Mulvaney wanted that. But it is striking, because effectively that’s what Nick Ayers wanted. And so President Trump, perhaps his back was against the wall because he wanted to put someone in place, so he agreed to Mick Mulvaney’s ask. But it’s not yet official. And so there’s a little bit of wiggle room there, a little bit of room for if President Trump were to encounter more controversies along the way, for him to make a change in that role.

MR. COSTA: Frankly, that’s why, in part as a reporter, I was surprised David Bossie didn’t get it, because he’s facing the Mueller investigation, the president’s facing the Mueller investigation, House Democrats. Bossie may not have all the experience on – he worked on Capitol Hill, but he’s never worked in the White House, but he’s at least someone who knows congressional investigations. The president – who’s going to help the president? Is it Pat Cipollone, the new White House counsel, if it’s not Mick Mulvaney?

MS. KIM: Well, he had – so after a little bit of a delay, Pat Cipollone has started in the White House Counsel’s Office. So at least he’s in there and kind of starting to run the ship. But, you know, you and others – and other of our colleagues at The Washington Post have reported for a while just how decimated how the White House counsel staff has been for some time. I mean, usually it’s a – that office should have around, like, 50 to 60-or-so folks. A lot less than that. I mean, I think at one point it was around 20-25. That is not the firepower you need when you’re going to be showered with investigations, potential subpoenas. So once the first request for information goes out from a newly empowered House Democratic majority, and how the White House deals with that – when that request from the House Ways and Means Committee goes out for his tax returns, you know, how do they respond? Are they ready to go? Do they have a plan? We don’t yet know.

MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Podcast. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch on the Washington Week website. While you’re online check out the Washington Week -ly News Quiz.

I’m Robert Costa. See you next time.

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