During a Jan. 6 committee hearing a few weeks ago, Mick Mulvaney briefly marveled at the kind of folks Donald Trump listened to after his 2020 election defeat. As we discussed at the time, the former White House chief of staff pointed to the assorted cranks and charlatans who ultimately became the outgoing president’s inner circle, and wrote on Twitter, “Garbage in. Garbage out.”
Part of the problem with Mulvaney’s message was that it missed one of the key lessons from the House select committee’s hearing: There were adults in the room with Trump after his defeat, but the then-president sidelined those who told him inconvenient truths.
But the other part of the problem was with the messenger: Mulvaney’s quip appeared to be part of a larger effort to repair his credibility. It was as if the Republican believed that the political mainstream would be more inclined to take him seriously if he dismissed his former boss’ allies as “garbage.”
Two weeks later, during Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony, Mulvaney rushed to take her side, declaring, “I know her. I don’t think she is lying.” That was soon followed by a USA Today op-ed in which Mulvaney reflected on the fact that he’s defended Trump against claims that he did anything illegal, though he’s now starting to waver on those assumptions.
I was not alone in defending the president against such claims: Bill Barr, the two-time U.S. attorney general, and now no fan of Trump, said he didn’t believe the president’s actions that day rose to the level of a crime. I don’t know whether Barr is having a harder time maintaining that stance after Tuesday’s hearing of the Jan. 6 committee. But I certainly am. Because after some of the bombshells that got dropped in that hearing, my guess is that things could get very dark for the former president.
This week, Mulvaney wrote another op-ed, this time for The Charlotte Observer, in which he agreed with some of the right’s criticisms of the Jan. 6 investigation before urging his allies to take the revelations seriously anyway.
“When Republicans start testifying under oath that other Republicans lost the 2020 election and then broke the law to try to change that, Republicans should pay attention,” Mulvaney concluded. “Everyone should.”
To be sure, the commentary matters to the extent that Trump’s former White House chief of staff appears to be distancing himself from the former president he served, in one capacity or another, for nearly four full years.
But stepping back, Mulvaney’s efforts to rehabilitate his image aren’t exactly subtle. No one writes multiple op-eds like these because they’re in a loquacious mood. Rather, this is an obvious public-relations effort.
It’s also unlikely to work.
In case anyone needs a refresher about Mulvaney’s record, let’s revisit our earlier coverage and review his habit of falling up.
In the not-too-distant past, the South Carolina Republican was a fairly obscure right-wing congressman best known for championing government shutdowns, debt-ceiling crises, and pointless votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. As recently as 2016, he even accepted a speaking invitation from the John Birch Society.
Congress has always had fringe members, and during his ineffective tenure on Capitol Hill, Mulvaney was not taken especially seriously as a lawmaker.
But Trump saw this as a record worthy of a promotion, elevating Mulvaney to lead OMB, where he peddled conspiracy theories, was at times disconnected from the then-president’s position on budget issues, and where he gave the banking industry some rather crude advice on how best to exploit Capitol Hill corruption.
During Mulvaney’s tenure as budget director, the nation’s finances also took a turn toward the absurd: By some measures, the United States never had a budget deficit that high during a period of strong economic growth.
It was against this backdrop that Trump decided to give Mulvaney additional responsibilities, so the then-president tapped him to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — despite (or perhaps, because of) the fact that Mulvaney opposed the existence of the CFPB. Predictably, he proceeded to gut the agency’s enforcement efforts, aligning the bureau’s priorities with the goals of the payday-lending industry.
And yet, the more Mulvaney’s record took ridiculous turns, the more his boss was impressed. Every failure was followed by a promotion, to the point that Trump also put Mulvaney in charge of the White House — at which point he publicly confessed that Team Trump had illegally extorted our Ukrainian allies, only to then tell reporters, “Get over it.”
Soon after, as the Covid-19 crisis took shape in the United States, Mulvaney said the burgeoning public-health emergency was secretly an elaborate scheme concocted by Trump’s domestic enemies to make the Republican White House look bad in an election year.
As his tenure in the West Wing neared its end, Mulvaney even wrote an op-ed assuring the public that Trump would accept his defeat with grace.
It was around this time when multiple scholars came to the same conclusion: Mulvaney, after excusing and enabling a corrupt president’s worst instincts, was the single worst White House chief of staff in American history.
A year and a half later, he clearly wants to be taken seriously as a credible observer. It's certainly of interest to see Mulvaney join a crowded list of Team Trump members who are now uncomfortable being associated with their former boss, but if the South Carolinian expects to be a respected political voice, I’m afraid it’s far too late for that.