Mick Mulvaney hadn’t planned on staying long at the South Carolina Republican Party’s annual fundraising gala in August.
The acting White House chief of staff, who’d previously served in Congress and before that the S.C. Legislature, Mulvaney had only agreed to come back to Columbia to speak at this year’s dinner out of a sense of duty.
“He had told people, ‘I’m gonna breeze in and out,’” recalled Walter Whetsell, a S.C. veteran Republican strategist close to Mulvaney’s orbit. “He was prepared to walk in, shake a hand or two, speak and leave.”
That didn’t happen.
“He came early, he stayed late. It was nothing short of him being treated like a rock star,” Whetsell said. “And he played off of that energy. He became animated, and it was clear he was enjoying himself, and that made for a better speech, and that made for more applause, and it just fed off each other. It was rather remarkable to watch.”
Mulvaney’s performance at a press briefing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday did not receive the same backslapping.
Though he went to the White House podium to announce the United States would host next year’s G-7 summit at President Donald Trump’s resort in Doral, Florida, he ended up admitting Trump withheld foreign aid from Ukraine to entice the eastern European government to assist with an investigation into foreign interference in 2016.
A reporter had asked about a “quid pro quo” to get Ukraine to look into a hack into the Democratic National Committee server in the last presidential election.
“Absolutely. No question about that,” Mulvaney replied. “But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money.”
“We do that all the time with foreign policy,” he said at another point.
The trip-up in the briefing room had the White House scrambling to play clean up as Democrats seized on new ammunition they could use in impeachment proceedings against the president.
Just in time for the evening news broadcasts that same day, Mulvaney accused journalists of misconstruing his comments — an accusation journalists did not accept as they continued to hammer Republicans over the issue on Friday.
Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow distanced himself from the episode in a statement saying, “The President’s legal counsel was not involved in acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s press briefing.”
For Mulvaney, who has been rumored to be on thin ice with Trump, the remarks at the press conference were not helpful.
Even some of Mulvaney’s closest Republican allies on Capitol Hill seemed uneasy about his performance.
U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who is close to both Mulvaney and to Trump, stressed Friday morning that nothing Mulvaney said the day before changed the fact that 55 hours of testimony from five key witnesses central to the Democratic impeachment inquiry showed no evidence of a quid pro quo.
When asked whether Mulvaney misspoke, Meadows conceded, “I would think so.” The two men spoke earlier in the day, but Meadows would not reveal what was discussed.
But then something happened: Trump aides came to Mulvaney’s defense.
Trump was on his way to Fort Worth, Texas, when Mulvaney addressed reporters. He did not become aware of the comments until later, two White House sources said, speaking under condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss personnel matters.
The sources said Friday morning, however, that Trump was pleased with Mulvaney’s appearance at the podium — Mulvaney’s first since his promotion to acting chief of staff ten months ago.
One source, who spoke directly to the president, said Trump felt Mulvaney did “very well” in the contentious briefing.
“Anytime someone articulates the president’s message and fights back against the press corps that seems to have the collective singular goal of defeating Donald Trump, he’s going to like it,” the official said.
Trump’s reelection campaign sent out a fundraising email several hours later promoting Mulvaney’s claim from the podium that anyone who has a problem with politics influencing foreign policy needs to “get over it.”
“The President has been fully transparent and it’s time for Democrats to get over it,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said. “Americans should call their members of Congress and tell them: get over it and get back to work!”
The campaign is now selling t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase, “get over it,” and Mulvaney is scheduled to appear on Fox News Sunday.
‘He loves his job’
White House officials said Friday that despite rumors of Trump’s displeasure, he has not voiced any disapproval of Mulvaney’s job performance.
If Mulvaney were to be forced out of the White House, sources close to the acting chief said he was likely to take a job in the private sector where he could make money.
However, Mulvaney’s overwhelmingly positive reception in South Carolina — and the extent to which he basked in the positive attention over the summer — shows not only that he could still be eyeing a political future in the Palmetto State but that the Palmetto State’s GOP establishment would be glad to have him back.
Prior to being nominated to be the director of the Office of Management and Budget in 2016, Mulvaney was weighing a run for governor in South Carolina in 2018 — and it’s something he could still be eyeing if the current governor, Henry McMaster, declines to seek a second term.
South Carolina Republicans say the more likely scenario is that McMaster will appoint Mulvaney to replace U.S. Sen. Tim Scott if the South Carolina Republican leaves his term early or doesn’t run for reelection in 2022.
Though Scott has said publicly he will run in 2022 and leave in 2029, several S.C. Republicans — including U.S. Reps. Ralph Norman of Rock Hill and Jeff Duncan of Laurens — said they’d heard rumors that the senator could step down sooner.
Scott’s communications director, Sean Smith, said that rumor is absolutely false.
But regardless, the chatter strongly implies that Mulvaney is still regarded back at home as a political player.
It could be moot: The president’s acting chief of staff, who is also still serving as director of the OMB, has not signaled a desire to leave the administration.
“He loves his job,” one White House official said.