One of Mick Mulvaney’s first acts after he started working as President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff in December was to hit the television airwaves. With Trump under fire for forcing a government shutdown to fund a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Mulvaney took a guest turn on ABC’s This Week to defend the man he calls “the boss.”
In the four months since then, Mulvaney has been a noticeably public defender of the president, popping up everywhere from Fox News to CBS’ “Face the Nation” to sitting for an onstage interview last week at a major investor conference in Los Angeles.
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That might once have seemed standard for a top administration official. But these days, Mulvaney stands out among the thinning ranks of White House officials who regularly defend a controversial president who has complained that he doesn’t have more public backup.
Now four months into the job, Mulvaney — who has taken a light touch toward managing Trump himself — has made pumping up the White House’s communications machine a top priority. The communications and press strategy is something Mulvaney and Trump talk about almost every day, Mulvaney told POLITICO, and he believes that even a president who dominates the media on a daily basis needs more forceful messaging and more messengers, especially now that a hostile Democratic House and some two dozen Democratic candidates are blitzing him nonstop.
“We’ll spend a little more time being proactive, and a little less time being reactive,” Mulvaney told POLITICO in an interview about his plans to fine-tune the White House communications and press shop. “We’ve got a great message to sell. We want to talk about the economy. We want to talk about health care. We want to talk about trade, so if we can try to drive the narrative a little bit more, we think that would be a valuable improvement.”
Easier said than done, say several former administration officials. Mulvaney’s two predecessors also talked about improving those teams, according to four current and former administration officials. Those efforts stalled out amid the infighting, high turnover, low morale and a president who can undercut the best laid communications strategy with a stray comment to the White House press corps.
“Whatever Trump tweets out that morning will be the headline, regardless of what the communications plan is,” said one former official. “A lot of people take their frustrations out on the communications team, but Trump will always be the communications director.”
And that can detract from any other officials’ on-the-record message. “Previously, you could have a powerful chief of staff on a Sunday show, or a top official like Colin Powell, or Donald Rumsfeld. That has less of an impact now because President Trump is such an alpha male,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as the White House press secretary under President George W. Bush. “It reduces the impact of those other qualified and good communicators.”
Mulvaney has absorbed this fact, given his more laissez-faire approach to running the White House. And he praised the press and communications team’s work around the rollout of Attorney General William Barr’s March 24 letter and April 18 news conference describing the findings of the Mueller report, both of which Democrats now call misleading.
Instead, Mulvaney is trying to work at the margins to bolster the operations. He has no plans to fire anyone, and enjoys a good relationships with press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who remains one of the president’s closest confidants in the White House, according to three senior administration officials.
He also does not intend to fill the slot vacated by the former White House deputy chief of staff Bill Shine, who was brought in to oversee communications but left after roughly eight months. Shine was the fifth White House staffer to serve as Trump’s communications director in roughly 2½ years after Sean Spicer, Mike Dubke, Anthony Scaramucci and Hope Hicks resigned, or flamed out.
Instead, Mulvaney wants to boost the efforts of the press and communications teams by adding staff, urging Cabinet members and outside allies to make more television appearances, and make sure the communications and press teams are included in policy meetings so that they better understand how to sell any Trump proposals.
But current and former administration officials unanimously agree that — however noble and practical-sounding the goal may be — as long as Trump is president, those teams will be under siege. That’s the reality of serving a media-obsessed president who cares little about the details or the organizational chart of his press and communications teams
“If you get ahead of the president and answer a question, and then two weeks later, he does something different, you look stupid,” said a second former administration official. “Until the message comes from the president, it doesn’t count.”
Mulvaney also would like more Cabinet members and outside White House allies known as surrogates to defend Trump on television more regularly, and be more visible. Only a relatively small stable of aides and Cabinet members now do this regularly — including Kellyanne Conway, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In the past, Cabinet members have not always been eager to appear on TV to defend a president whose poll numbers are mired well under 50 percent and is the focus of near-constant outrage from his critics. Even some officials like Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, are known as press shy even as trade remains one of the White House’s most dominant issues.
“The president gravitates towards — and loves it when — his Cabinet members are out there,” said one former administration official. “What you have seen is that those Cabinet members who are reluctant or resistant to doing TV leave their posts, and they are replaced with people not afraid of the media.”
Mulvaney has been telling Cabinet members and top officials they have cover from him if they do more appearances, said one senior administration official. “Having the White House message amplified is such a big part of what we do,” the official added. “I don’t know if it was a big enough exercise for other chiefs as it is for Mick.”
Mulvaney also plans to staff up the White House’s communications teams. Already, he has brought over from his two prior administration jobs, at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget, two top officials: John Czwartacki, who serves as senior adviser to the chief of staff for strategy and Meghan Burris, a special assistant to the president and director of Media Affairs. A third former aide from the budget agency also may soon join the communications team, according to three current administration officials.
Burris has been overseeing the White House’s efforts with regional news outlets, touting administration efforts on issues like the economy, or opioids or judicial nominations to local outlets around the country — an effort considered more important internally by Mulvaney than wooing the Washington press corps as Trump heads into his reelection campaign.
Czwartacki has quickly become a trusted aide inside the White House. He began sitting in on communications and press team meetings over the winter and can translate Mulvaney’s wishes for other staffers. But he’s currently detailed to the White House, and it’s unclear if he will end up staying for a more permanent job in the press shop.
As for the daily press briefing, which disappeared months ago, it looks unlikely to return to its regular functioning under Mulvaney’s leadership of the White House staff. “I would throw it back to the press. Look, are you really making the argument that you don’t have access to information? Goodness gracious, the president is available to the press himself almost every single day,” Mulvaney said. “You’re getting it straight from the president of the United States in a way that I’m pretty sure is unparalleled.”
Now it’s a question of whether Mulvaney’s small moves can deliver the president the media coverage he so desires heading into 2020 — as the campaign and Republican National Committee also staff up. “Trump is the ultimate surrogate, but it is always a good strategy to put other players on the field to support the president,” said veteran Republican communicator Ron Bonjean.