White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was reportedly blindsided by the military operation that killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
That extraordinary revelation is the latest sign that Mulvaney’s time as the most powerful member of Donald Trump’s staff is running out, reports News.com.au.
Today NBC News reported that Mulvaney only learned about the operation against al-Baghdadi when it had already started. It cited “five current and former senior administration officials” as its sources.
He was at home in South Carolina, with two entire states between himself and the White House, when Trump posted his cryptic tweet announcing “something very big” had just happened. We later found out that “something” was al-Baghdadi’s death.
It was the most significant death of a terrorist since a team of Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, when Barack Obama was president.
Obama’s chief of staff, William Daley, was in the Situation Room during that operation, as you would expect, given the responsibilities of his role.
Trump was joined by a group of senior officials, including Vice President Mike Pence and Defence Secretary Mark Esper. But the man in charge of running his White House was not even at work.
Andrew Card, who served as George W. Bush’s chief of staff for five years, told NBC Mulvaney’s exclusion was “baffling” and “hard to imagine”.
He said any White House chief of staff should have been involved in the meetings leading up to such a significant military operation, and also should have been co-ordinating with other officials.
Mulvaney became Chief of Staff in December of last year following the resignation of his predecessor, four-star general John Kelly. Notably, he was only labelled the “acting” chief of staff – a title he still has not shed.
He is the third man to occupy the role, after Gen Kelly and Republican Party political operative Reince Priebus.
Multiple reports in recent weeks have suggested Mulvaney is being sidelined by Trump, and that he could soon be replaced.
Most significantly, Bloomberg reported Trump has been “privately testing the idea of replacing” him, and Reuters said he was soliciting opinions on potential candidates.
Mulvaney did not help his own cause when he dropped two bombshell announcements during a stunning press conference earlier this month, only for both of them to be walked back shortly afterwards.
First, he said next year’s G7 summit – a gathering of world leaders from the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada and Italy – would be hosted at one of Trump’s golf resorts.
That sparked allegations that Trump was profiting off the presidency, and within days the President reversed the decision.
Second, Mulvaney seemed to admit military aid money had been withheld from Ukraine in an attempt to pressure it into opening an investigation into the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee.
That undercut a key aspect of Trump’s argument against impeachment – that there was no “quid pro quo” arrangement in his dealings with Ukraine.
“You were directly involved in a decision to withhold funding from Ukraine. Can you explain to us now why funding was withheld?” ABC reporter Jon Karl asked.
Mulvaney explained Trump’s general dislike for foreign aid and said he was concerned about corruption overseas.
“Did he also mention to me in the past the corruption that related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it, and that’s why we hung up the money,” Mulvaney concluded.
“So the demand for an investigation into the Democrats was part of the reason that he ordered to withhold funding from Ukraine?” Karl followed up.
“The look back to what happened in 2016, certainly, was part of the things that he was worried about in corruption with that nation, and that is absolutely appropriate,” Mulvaney replied.
“Withholding the funding?” Karl said.
“Yeah. Which ultimately then flowed,” said Mulvaney.
He is correct that the military aid was eventually released by the White House. It happened in September after pressure from politicians in Congress who wondered why the aid they had approved was being held up.
“But to be clear, what you just described is a quid pro quo, it is funding will not flow unless the investigation into the Democrats’ server happens as well,” Karl continued.
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” Mulvaney said.
The media took that exchange to be an admission that there was in fact a quid pro quo.
A few hours after the press conference, Mulvaney issued a statement accusing people of misinterpreting him.
“Once again, the media has decided to misconstrue my comments to advance a biased and political witch hunt against President Trump,” he said.
“Let me be clear. There was absolutely no quid pro quo between Ukrainian military aid and any investigation into the 2016 election. The President never told me to withhold any money until the Ukrainians did anything related to the server. The only reasons we were holding the money was because of concern about lack of support from other nations and concerns over corruption.
“There was never any connection between the funds and the Ukrainians doing anything with the server. This was made explicitly obvious by the fact that the aid money was delivered without any action on the part of the Ukrainians regarding the server.”
The damage was already done though. Mulvaney had screwed up, and muddled Trump’s message in the process.
Trump isn’t known for forgiving those sorts of mistakes easily – and the speculation about Mulvaney’s future has been increasing ever since.