President Trump’s third chief of staff seemed destined for the door until impeachment came along.
Mick Mulvaney’s job was in danger even before his disastrous press conference yesterday, and his equally disastrous attempt to walk that performance back. The fumble could not have been more poorly timed: According to multiple current and former White House officials, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to relay private conversations, Trump has been steadily souring on Mulvaney for weeks.
In his maiden briefing-room appearance yesterday, the acting White House chief of staff acknowledged that the Trump administration had held up military aid to Ukraine in exchange for a politically motivated investigation—a quid pro quo that Trump has repeatedly insisted never took place, and is the subject of the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
The president has polled confidants about whether Mulvaney is up to the job, blaming him for leaks and negative news coverage, and considering whether he should find someone else to run the West Wing. It might stand to reason, then, that with Trump’s growing frustrations with Mulvaney—coupled with a performance yesterday that could put Trump in greater legal jeopardy than ever before—Mulvaney’s days as acting chief of staff are numbered.
Yesterday’s press conference was significant not just for Mulvaney’s revelations about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. It also laid bare just how key a role Mulvaney has played in those dealings. Mulvaney admitted, for example, that Trump had spoken to him directly about an issue at the heart of Congress’s impeachment inquiry: withholding aid to Ukraine partly because Trump wanted an investigation into a conspiracy theory involving a Democratic National Committee server.
Trump was not happy—and neither were his most prominent allies. The shock of Mulvaney’s admission was only compounded by the flippancy with which he delivered it: For those troubled by it, he told reporters, “get over it.” Mulvaney later walked the claim back, but even in the eyes of the president’s closest confidants, the damage was done. For a White House staffer, there is perhaps no worse place to be than in Sean Hannity’s crosshairs, and that’s where Mulvaney found himself yesterday, after undercutting the administration’s talking points on impeachment in a way that not even a Trump-loving Fox News host could spin. Shortly after the press conference, Hannity excoriated the acting chief on his radio show: “What is Mulvaney even talking about?” Hannity scoffed. “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.”
Nevertheless, in the course of combusting the White House’s narrative on impeachment, Mulvaney unwittingly demonstrated why, at this fraught moment in Trump’s presidency, he may be untouchable: Should Trump fire him and leave him aggrieved, Mulvaney could prove a damaging witness in Congress’s impeachment investigation.
A former White House official said Trump “will be feeling the pain of having pushed out [former National Security Adviser John] Bolton at a very inopportune time. He won’t make the same mistake with Mulvaney, however frustrated he may be with him. Now, their interests are aligned. They sink or swim together.”
It’s a line of thinking that has come to permeate the West Wing, and it marks a significant shift in how Trump is beginning to view his relationship with his staffers. For the past two and a half years, the White House has operated like a radio perpetually set on scan, with Trump sampling staffer after staffer in search of those whose rhythms match his own. Indeed, as Mulvaney told us earlier this year, it’s made for a West Wing whose atmosphere is dictated by one particular maxim: “He could fire any of us tomorrow.”
With the backdrop of impeachment, however, some White House staffers could feel more secure in their jobs than even their boss—and that’s perhaps especially true of Mulvaney. As Democrats move forward in their investigation, they’re looking for star witnesses, those officials in Trump’s inner circle who could speak authoritatively as to whether Trump pressured a foreign power to open investigations into both the 2016 election and former Vice President Joe Biden. And should Trump discard an adviser in his preferred manner—hastily announce the news on Twitter, then trash the person’s reputation—he or she may decide to become said star witness.
When Trump fired Bolton last month, he sent out a frosty tweet saying Bolton’s “services are no longer needed” and later mocked him for supporting the Iraq War. Since then, Bolton has made clear he has no desire to stay quiet, suggesting in a recent speech at a think tank in Washington, D.C., that Trump’s effort to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program is failing. Now Bolton is even better positioned to retaliate, and House Democrats may subpoena him to testify as part of their impeachment probe.
Bolton’s uncertain loyalty in this pivotal moment has convinced many of Trump’s allies that, eager as the president may be to oust him, Mulvaney is better kept inside of the White House. According to the current and former White House officials and others close to the president, people have been urging Trump to hold his acting chief in place, telling him that the risk of an aggrieved ex-official on the outside far outweighs any annoyances Trump may have with him. As President Lyndon Johnson famously said about then–FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, it’s better to keep him inside the tent “pissing out” than the opposite.
“The president always fears that people he either gets rid of or resigns will turn out to be a press liability,” one person close to the White House told us. “But, look, if you treat people like crap, you shouldn’t expect loyalty.”
According to legal experts, by keeping Mulvaney in place, Trump can make a stronger case that Mulvaney is immune from having to testify about conversations with the president. “It becomes more difficult to control those who are no longer part of the executive branch,” Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, told us.
This is not to say, of course, that Trumpworld was quick to move on from Mulvaney’s disastrous briefing-room appearance. One of the president’s personal lawyers, Jay Sekulow, released a terse statement after Mulvaney’s press conference, saying that Trump’s legal team “was not involved” in the briefing.
However, the fact that Mulvaney still holds his job—in spite of the torrent of criticism inside and outside the White House—could underscore just how much impeachment has come to scramble the regular rhythms of this presidency. Gone, perhaps, are the days when Trump would give little thought to axing a senior official. Because while tell-all books come and go—promising a juicy anecdote here, a gossipy passage there—the impeachment inquiry is in motion. Which means the risk of ushering his staff into the arms of Democratic investigators is one that Trump may become less and less inclined to take.
There was a curious moment on Wednesday in the Oval Office, when Trump’s opinion of Bolton suddenly seemed to brighten. No longer did Trump want to dwell on his disagreements with Bolton or how Bolton had wrongly supported the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. “I actually got along with him pretty well. It just didn’t work out,” Trump told reporters during a meeting with his Italian counterpart, Sergio Mattarella.
It was as though Trump was telegraphing an understanding of the stakes, in this moment, of having his former national security adviser as an enemy. And earlier today, when he brushed off reporters’ questions about Mulvaney’s press conference, saying simply, “I think he clarified it,” Trump seemed to communicate another message of self-awareness: that he, more than ever, needs Mulvaney as a friend.
As House Democrats moved to begin a formal impeachment inquiry, the administration also prepared to release a redacted version of the whistle-blower’s complaint.
White House and intelligence officials were working out a plan on Tuesday to release a redacted version of the whistle-blower complaint that helped ignite the impeachment drive against President Trump and to allow the whistle-blower to speak with congressional investigators, people briefed on the matter said.
The move toward disclosing more information demanded by Democrats was part of a broader effort by the administration to quell the growing calls for Mr. Trump’s impeachment, and became public after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the start of a formal impeachment inquiry.
Ms. Pelosi told fellow Democrats that in a private call that she had with the president on Tuesday, he said he was not responsible for the whistle-blower complaint being withheld from Congress, according to Democrats.
The precise content of the whistle-blower’s complaint has not been made public. It was found to be urgent and credible by the inspector general for the intelligence community, and is said to involve Mr. Trump and Ukraine. People familiar with the situation said the administration was putting the complaint through a declassification process and planned to release a redacted version within days.
It was filed Aug. 12, several weeks after Mr. Trump spoke by phone with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The whistle-blower’s identity has not been publicly disclosed.
Mr. Trump has acknowledged that during the call with Mr. Zelensky, he brought up his longstanding demand for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his younger son, Hunter Biden, who did business in Ukraine while his father was in office and playing a leading role in diplomacy with Ukraine.
The president and his aides had initially rejected congressional requests to examine the complaint, igniting intense criticism from House Democrats. But as pressure built in the House to begin impeachment proceedings, administration officials concluded that holding out would put them in a politically untenable position.
The appearance that they were stonewalling Congress, in their view, could prove more damaging than the whistle-blower’s account. Mr. Trump also believes that the allegations about him are not nearly as damning as they have been portrayed and that disclosing them will undercut the impeachment drive, people close to the president said.
Inside the White House, recriminations have begun over how the situation devolved to a point where a formal impeachment inquiry has been announced, people briefed on the situation said.
Some of his longtime critics blamed Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, for not acting more forcefully. But most blamed Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, for aggressively digging for dirt on the Bidens in Ukraine and inserting himself into official dealings with a Ukrainian official through the State Department — as well as his public statements about his efforts.
The administration’s decision to seek ways to defuse some of the tension over the whistle-blower was a striking turnabout. Intelligence community lawyers sent a letter to the whistle-blower’s lawyers on Tuesday, indicating that the office was trying to work out the issues that would allow the whistle-blower to speak with Congress.
Andrew P. Bakaj, a lawyer for the whistle-blower, had sent a letter to the director of national intelligence earlier on Tuesday, saying that his client wanted to meet with members of Congress but needed the office’s approval.
“We applaud the decision to release the whistle-blower complaint as it establishes that, ultimately, the lawful whistle-blower disclosure process can work,” said Mr. Bakaj and I. Charles McCullough III, another lawyer for the whistle-blower.
Intelligence community lawyers have had discussions with the White House and the Justice Department officials about how the whistle-blower can share his complaint without infringing on issues like executive privilege.
Allowing the whistle-blower to meet with congressional investigators would provide the whistle-blower an opportunity to share at least some details of the complaint he filed, even if the full document is not handed over to Congress.
Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, said Tuesday that he would work with Congress and the administration to find a resolution in the standoff over congressional access to the complaint.
In a sharply worded statement, Mr. Maguire pushed back on an assertion by Ms. Pelosi that he had acted illegally by withholding the whistle-blower complaint from Congress.
“In light of recent reporting on the whistle-blower complaint, I want to make clear that I have upheld my responsibility to follow the law every step of the way,” Mr. Maguire said.
Mr. Maguire also appeared to defend the whistle-blower, saying that all members of the country’s intelligence agencies “have a solemn responsibility to do what is right, which includes reporting wrongdoing.”
The administration had originally barred the whistle-blower’s complaint from being shared with Congress on the grounds that it did not meet the legal definitions of a matter under the purview of office of the director of national intelligence.
But by Tuesday, the administration was working on several fronts to disclose key elements of the material sought by congressional Democrats. Mr. Trump said as he attended meetings at the United Nations on Tuesday that he would release a transcript of his call on July 25 with Mr. Zelensky.
The decision to release a transcript of the call made seeking a compromise on the whistle-blower easier, a person familiar with the matter said. But the information in the complaint goes beyond the material in the transcript, meaning there are still potential issues of White House executive privilege that need to be resolved, the person said.
A spokeswoman for the office of the director of national intelligence declined to comment.
Since before the confrontation over the whistle-blower complaint became public, Mr. Maguire has been trying to broker a compromise that would allow some or all of the information to go to Congress to resolve the crisis.
Friends of Mr. Maguire’s have said he has felt caught between his duty to inform Congress on the one hand and his legal advisers and the Justice Department on the other. They had said he was not legally permitted to share the information.
The White House deliberations came as Democrats announced that they were moving forward with a formal impeachment investigation of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump, according to people close to him, believes Democrats will overplay their hand and that once the transcript is released, it will not prove to be a problem for him.
But the whistle-blower’s complaint is said to extend beyond the one phone call, and Mr. Trump has had at least one other phone call with Mr. Zelensky, on April 21.
WASHINGTON — President Trump, seeking to justify his claim of a hurricane threat to Alabama, pressed aides to intervene with a federal scientific agency, leading to a highly unusual public rebuke of the forecasters who contradicted him, according to people familiar with the events.
In response to the president’s request, Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, told Wilbur Ross, the commerce secretary, to have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration publicly correct the forecasters, who had insisted that Alabama was not actually at risk from Hurricane Dorian.
A senior administration official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters, said Mr. Trump told his staff to have NOAA “clarify” the forecasters’ position. NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department, then issued an unsigned statement saying the Birmingham, Ala., office of the National Weather Service was wrong to refute the president’s warning so categorically.
But the statement only intensified the uproar over Mr. Trump’s storm prediction as critics accused his administration of politicizing the weather. The Commerce Department inspector general has opened an investigation, and on Wednesday, a Democrat-controlled House science committee kicked off its own inquiry.
As a result, the furor over Mr. Trump’s storm prediction has evolved from a momentary embarrassment into a sustained political liability for the administration — no longer just a question of a president unwilling to admit a mistake but now a White House seemingly willing to pressure scientists to validate it.
The New York Times reported this week that Mr. Ross warned NOAA’s acting administrator that top employees at the agency could be fired if the situation were not addressed. Mr. Ross’s spokesman has denied that he threatened to fire anyone. A senior official on Wednesday said that if Mr. Ross did make such threats, it was not at the direction of Mr. Mulvaney.
After The Times disclosed Mr. Mulvaney’s role on Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that he was acting at Mr. Trump’s direction, which the senior official confirmed to The Times. But when Mr. Trump was asked by a reporter if he told his chief of staff to instruct NOAA to “disavow those forecasters,” he denied it.
“No, I never did that,” Mr. Trump said. “I never did that. That’s a whole hoax by the fake news media. When they talk about the hurricane and when they talk about Florida and they talk about Alabama, that’s just fake news. It was — right from the beginning, it was a fake story.”
The White House had no comment beyond the president’s remarks. The senior official made a distinction between telling NOAA to “disavow” the forecast and to “clarify” it. The White House argument was that the forecasters had gone too far and that the president was right to suggest there had been models showing a possible impact on Alabama.
The release of the NOAA statement provoked complaints that the Trump administration was improperly intruding in the professional weather forecasting system to rationalize an inaccurate presidential assertion. In opening its investigation, the Commerce Department’s inspector general said the events could call into question scientific independence.
The House Committee on Science, Space and Technology expressed similar concerns as it announced its own investigation into Mr. Ross’s actions on Wednesday.
“We are deeply disturbed by the politicization of NOAA’s weather forecast activities for the purpose of supporting incorrect statements by the president,” wrote Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the chairwoman of the committee, along with Representative Mikie Sherrill, the chairman of its oversight panel.
The latest challenge to Mr. Trump’s credibility has its origins in one of the more prosaic duties a president has: warning the nation when natural disasters like Hurricane Dorian threaten communities.
On Sept. 1, as Dorian gathered strength over the Atlantic and headed toward the East Coast, the president wrote on Twitter that Alabama, among other states, “will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” Earlier forecast maps had suggested that Alabama might see some effects from the edge of the storm, but by the time of the president’s tweet, the predictions had already changed.
A few minutes after Mr. Trump’s tweet, the National Weather Service in Birmingham posted its own message on Twitter flatly declaring that “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama.” The forecasters were correct; Alabama was not struck by the hurricane.
Nonetheless, Mr. Trump was furious at being challenged and kept insisting for days that he had been right. He displayed or posted outdated maps, including one that had been apparently altered with a Sharpie pen to make it look like Alabama might still be in the path of the storm. He had his homeland security adviser release a statement backing him up.
After Mr. Trump told his staff on Sept. 5 to address the matter, Mr. Mulvaney called Mr. Ross, who was in Greece traveling for meetings. Mr. Ross then called Neil Jacobs, the acting administrator of NOAA, at home around 3 a.m. Friday, Washington time, and instructed him to clear up the agency’s contradiction of the president, according to three people informed about the discussions.
Dr. Jacobs objected to the demand and was told that the political appointees at NOAA would be fired if the situation were not fixed, according to the three individuals, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the episode. The political staff at an agency typically includes a handful of top officials, such as Dr. Jacobs, and their aides. They are appointed by the administration currently in power, as opposed to career government employees, who remain as administrations come and go.
The statement NOAA ultimately issued later on Friday faulted the Birmingham office for a tweet that “spoke in absolute terms that were inconsistent with probabilities from the best forecast products available at the time.”
Dr. Jacobs has since sought to reassure his work force and the broader scientific community concerned about political interference.
“This administration is committed to the important mission of weather forecasting,” Dr. Jacobs said at a weather conference on Tuesday in Huntsville, Ala. “There is no pressure to change the way you communicate or forecast risk in the future.”
In the speech, Dr. Jacobs praised Mr. Trump, calling him “genuinely interested in improving weather forecasts,” and echoed the president’s position that Dorian initially threatened Alabama. “At one point, Alabama was in the mix, as was the rest of the Southeast.”
He also said he still had faith in the Birmingham office. “The purpose of the NOAA statement was to clarify the technical aspects of the potential impacts of Dorian,” Dr. Jacobs said. “What it did not say, however, is that we understand and fully support the good intent of the Birmingham weather forecast office, which was to calm fears in support of public safety.”
Unassuaged, the House science panel has demanded documents and information related to the NOAA statement and its origins.
In addition to emails, memos, texts and records of telephone calls, the committee asked Mr. Ross to answer a number of questions, including whether any representative of the Executive Office of the President directed NOAA to issue Friday’s statement or specify the language in it.
Committee members also reminded Mr. Ross of statements that he made under oath in his confirmation hearing that he would not interfere with science, particularly at NOAA, which in addition to weather forecasting is the agency responsible for understanding and predicting changes in the earth’s climate.
“Science should be done by scientists,” Mr. Ross testified in that January 2017 hearing. “I support the release of factual scientific data.”