Director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney listens to a question during a press briefing at the White House, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, in Washington.
Alex Brandon/AP Photo

White House’s Mulvaney: ‘The issue is not whether it’s ethical’

As a rule, “ethics, schmethics” isn’t a great line for any White House to take in the midst of multiple controversies and investigations.

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Sunday that whether the Trump campaign’s actions regarding Russia were unethical is not important; what matters is that those actions were not found to be criminal.

Mulvaney was asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” to respond to House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff’s statement last week that the campaign acted immorally and corruptly with regard to Russia, whether it involved Trump’s negotiations over a possible Trump Tower in Russia, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s sharing of polling data with a Russian associate who law enforcement has said is linked to Russian intelligence, or the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between top campaign officials and Russians who promised dirt on 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“The issue is not whether it’s ethical,” Mulvaney said before criticizing the California Democrat’s handling of his chairmanship.

I can appreciate why Donald Trump’s top aide would try to adopt a hyper-practical posture. The president was the subject of an investigation, and for the White House, the most meaningful consideration was a binary question: would Trump face an indictment or not?

If the answer is the latter, that effectively ends the conversation. Ethics are a nicety that didn’t quite make the cut on the West Wing’s priority list.

But as a political matter, it’s an underwhelming posture. As the president and his team look ahead to next year’s re-election fight, this isn’t a great slogan: “Vote for Donald Trump, who may have acted unethically, but who hasn’t yet been charged with a felony.”

As part of the same interview yesterday, the acting White House chief of staff added, in reference to the House Intelligence Committee’s scrutiny, “[W]e really do think enough is enough and it’s time to move on to other things.”

That’s a lot less persuasive than Mulvaney probably realizes.

For one thing, “moving on” is awfully difficult when we haven’t yet seen Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. There’s a long list of questions that still need answers, and if White House officials want to put the scandal behind them, the quickest way to do that would be push for full disclosure.

For another, the acting White House chief of staff used the word “we,” but I’m not sure Mulvaney’s boss is among those who sincerely want to “move on.” As the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne explained in his latest column, no one is more obsessed with this story than Trump.

But even if we put these relevant details aside, I was intrigued by Mulvaney suggestion that the White House wants to “move on to other things.” Such as? The president doesn’t really have a policy agenda, per se, and he seems far more interested in seeking retribution against his perceived enemies than governing.

“Other things” might include something like infrastructure, but Team Trump doesn’t have an infrastructure plan. “Other things” might include something like health care, but Team Trump doesn’t have a health care plan, either. “Other things” might include something like immigration, but other than the president’s demands that Democrats give him everything he wants, including cuts to legal immigration, Team Trump doesn’t have a realistic immigration plan, either.

What is it the White House wants the political world to move on to?