Mulvaney’s performance the day before continued to reverberate Friday as Republican lawmakers, the Justice Department, Trump’s personal attorney, conservative media figures and several White House officials panned the news conference or distanced themselves from its contents.
With his admission that Trump withheld aid meant for Ukraine to push the government there to investigate Democrats, Mulvaney did more to harm Trump’s impeachment defense than administration officials testifying before Democratic-led committees in Congress, according to many Republican lawmakers and officials who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
And Mulvaney’s situation was made worse, some Republicans said, by his decision to attempt to retract his remarks hours later in a bellicose written statement blaming the media reporting his remarks.
One person who spoke with Trump said the president was not troubled by Mulvaney’s performance, however, and was happy to have someone defending him on television.
“These things go two ways — either he turns on you or he thinks you’re being treated unfairly,” this person said. “For right now, it’s the latter with Mick.”
But Trump has also been quizzing people about his acting chief of staff’s performance, according to an outside adviser familiar with the discussions. In recent weeks, the president had grown angry with Mulvaney over media coverage of the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, which has overcome White House defiance to obtain damaging testimony from several officials.
Publicly, the White House continued to stand by Mulvaney, a sign that he is likely to survive, at least for the moment.
“Mick Mulvaney’s standing in the White House has not changed,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Friday.
White House spokesman Judd Deere added, “He is still the acting chief of staff and has the president’s confidence.”
Privately, the opinion inside the White House toward Mulvaney’s news conference was almost universally negative, according to current and former administration officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
For hours after the news conference, in which Mulvaney appeared to contradict Trump’s denials of a quid pro quo linking political investigations to Ukrainian aid, White House officials worked to clean up his comments. Trump, who watched Mulvaney’s event on Air Force One while flying to Dallas, spoke to Mulvaney by phone about his follow-up statement, officials said.
White House officials said they were taken aback by Mulvaney’s comments in the briefing room. Speaking off the cuff, Mulvaney told reporters that Trump had intervened to block nearly $400 million in aid in part because he wanted Ukrainian officials to investigate a conspiracy theory that Ukraine was involved in election interference in 2016, something U.S. intelligence officials have repeatedly attributed to Russia.
“Did [Trump] also mention to me in the past the corruption related to the DNC server?” he said. “Absolutely, no question about that. But that’s it, and that’s why we held up the money.”
He punctuated his remarks with bravado, saying detractors should “get over it” because political influence in foreign policy was appropriate.
Mulvaney reversed course in his written statement, saying that “there was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election.”
But the walk-back did little to contain the damage caused by the televised comments, which sparked a wave of condemnation from Democrats and many of Trump’s Republican allies. Sean Hannity, a Fox News host who speaks regularly with the president, called Mulvaney “dumb” and his comments “idiotic” during his radio show Thursday.
Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) said Friday he was “shocked” by Mulvaney’s televised admission, which contradicted Trump’s previous denials.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he told reporters Friday. “When the president has said many times there wasn’t a quid pro quo . . . and now Mick Mulvaney goes up and says: Yeah, it was all part of the whole plan!”
Rooney said he was “still thinking about” backing Trump’s impeachment, adding that he was unconvinced by some of the arguments coming out of the White House.
Trump has no immediate choices to replace Mulvaney and was said to not be as frustrated as others in the White House, many of whom have expressed dismay about the lack of an organized impeachment response effort.
Leon E. Panetta, who served as chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, said Mulvaney’s news conference was “bizarre” and called into question his stewardship of the White House during the impeachment probe.
“The appearance is that they are totally disorganized,” he said. “There’s no message, there’s no clear defense to these allegations, and you can sense that when Mulvaney basically says ‘That’s the way it is’ without really presenting any rational position that could defend what the president is accused of.”
But Trump has reveled in the lack of structure and appreciates a chief of staff who allows him to “do whatever he wants,” one former administration official said. It is one of the reasons Trump is not looking to fire Mulvaney, even though the men do not have the close personal rapport that Trump has with some other aides, the official said.
For example, when Trump decided recently to pull U.S. troops from Syria, Mulvaney did not attempt to block the move, as previous chief of staff John F. Kelly had done.
And with Trump complaining that so many people are turning on him, he is reluctant to dump anyone else from his team, aides said.
Mulvaney’s standing as chief of staff has always been precarious, underscored by the fact that the word “acting” remains in his title 10 months after he took the position.
Trump did not initially want to name Mulvaney as chief of staff, an administration official said. The former budget director was “left holding the bag” when Trump’s first choice — Vice President Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers — decided not to take the job, the official said.
Mulvaney’s tenure has been somewhat rocky of late. Administration officials have lamented about a White House communications shop that had essentially become the president’s defiant tweets, and a legislative affairs shop that was rowing uphill to push legislation amid impeachment.
Thursday’s briefing quickly went off track after Mulvaney took questions unrelated to Trump’s decision to host the 2020 G-7 at his Trump National Doral Miami golf resort.
A prep session held in Mulvaney’s office ahead of the news conference with White House lawyers and press staff, as well as State Department officials, focused mostly on G-7 questions, according to two officials familiar with the meeting.
On the other topics that came up, Mulvaney had prepared none of his answers in advance and was just “winging it,” according to a senior administration official.
Trump has complained in recent weeks that not enough advisers are on TV, with Grisham largely staying away from the cameras and White House aide Kellyanne Conway appearing sporadically. White House officials recently ordered Mark T. Esper, the defense secretary, to go on Sunday morning shows, according to a White House official, after Trump was so frustrated with the Syria coverage.
Mulvaney is expected to appear on Fox News this Sunday, an official said.
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.