Mulvaney: ‘100 mph all the time’

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Budget chief takes quick break from the Capitol whirlwind

By Gregory A. Summers

For Mick Mulvaney, it’s yogurt for breakfast, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and if he gets there in time, late-night fish-of-the-day from the Harris Teeter in the basement of the Crystal City, Va., condo he rents.
He has lost almost 15 pounds and is working 15-hour days, but he isn’t complaining.
Mulvaney calls it the high life of a cabinet member.
“I eat breakfast at my desk and lunch at my desk,” said Mulvaney, who resigned from the U.S. House in February when President Trump named him White House budget director.
“The only things in my refrigerator are soy sauce, salad dressing, some juice and frozen bread,” he said.
Mulvaney was back home Memorial Day weekend to celebrate daughter Caroline’s graduation from the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities. He sat down with The Lancaster News at Chick-fil-A on Monday before spending the afternoon with his dad. After that, he caught an 8:30 p.m. flight back to Washington.  
Now that Trump’s first budget, billed as “The New Foundation for American Greatness,” was completed last week, Mulvaney had a chance to catch his breath, though it’s only brief.
“The nice thing is when I’m home, I’m home 100 percent,” said the father of three, who still lives in Indian Land with his wife, Pam, and 17-year-old triplets Caroline, Finn and James.
Mulvaney makes it home about every two weeks. Right now, his routine is 12 days on and two days off, though he hopes to change that to 11 days on and three off.
“We’ll see what the president says,” he quipped. “I have that special phone that I have to carry everywhere, in case he calls. It goes in bits and spurts, depending on what the issues are.”
Caroline just graduated from the Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville last weekend. Finn is a rising senior at Indian Land High School, and James is a rising senior at the S.C. Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics in Hartsville. Finn will be interning at the White House Office of Management and Budget with his dad this summer.
“I’ve told him he needs to get used to peanut butter and jelly,” Mulvaney said, laughing. “And he has to make his own sandwiches, too.”             
No longer involved in political wrangling, per se, Mulvaney sees his job as putting the president’s budget vision on paper.

Proposed budget
The core of the 2018 federal budget centers on Trump’s priorities of more funding for defense, homeland security, national security, veterans and the border with Mexico.
The budget recommended to Congress also includes $3.6 trillion in spending reductions over the next decade with a goal on balancing the budget by 2027.
Mulvaney noted that President Trump has been very policy driven with the budget.
“Whether I recommend cutting $101 million from a program versus $102 million, he wants to know why we’re doing what we’re doing. He wants to know we think that’s a priority for his administration. That’s what he really gets into,” Mulvaney said.    
The OMB office is in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is just across the street from the White House. Anytime advice is called for in the West Wing on the cost of a policy alternative, he can be there almost immediately to answer questions for the White House staff.
While Trump’s management style involves moving rapid-fire from topic to topic, Mulvaney said, the president has a great grasp of details. Passing conversations on budgetary matters often come up weeks later. Trump, he said, remembers them.
“Once you tell him a number, he locks onto it. I was warned by those who know him best that he has an ability to do that, so we have to get our numbers right,” Mulvaney said. “The only place we really got down into the weeds was on the first run-through for the Defense Department. The $54 billion (increase) for the Defense Department, he really wanted that.”

Mulvaney personally believes it’s time to address issues that would reduce the long-term costs of Social Security and Medicare. But he said Trump has made that out of bounds for now.
“I respect that, and this budget keeps it off limits,” he said. “I knew that was coming. What surprised me is how we could balance the budget in 10 years without making those cuts,” Mulvaney said. “The president was very clear with me on that when we went down the list on proposed mandatory spending changes. We went through it four different times.
“In the end, he went down the list saying ‘Yes, yes, yes, and no, no, no,’” Mulvaney said, while tapping his cupped hand on the restaurant table.
“The no’s were Social Security retirement and Medicare,” he said, noting that Trump made campaign promises not to make cuts in those areas. The challenge was making the numbers work within those work rules.
“The man knows the promises he made, and he wants to keep them. To me, that’s somewhat refreshing and reassuring. He knows what he wants, and I have to make it balance,” Mulvaney said.          
The president, he said, is also getting more interested in the nuts-and-bolts details of building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
The budget is now in the hands of Congress, and Mulvaney is responsible for explaining the president’s proposal to them, along with the national media and the American people.
That means showing up on the nation’s airwaves – not his favorite role.
“I took this job ’cause they told me I wouldn’t have to go on TV,” Mulvaney said. “They wanted me to go on yesterday (May 28), but one of our kids got confirmed in church, and I wasn’t about to miss that.”

National spotlight
He doesn’t mind making speeches – he made one at his daughter’s graduation last week – but he said White House press briefings are an adrenaline-packed, tension-filled stage performance.
“Afterward, you feel like a deflated balloon,” he said. “If they think you did a good job, they pat you on the back, but if you do a bad job, you’ll hear and read about it for weeks.”
Those TV appearances have also given Mulvaney a little notoriety.
“I’m used to it around here since I know folks,” he said. “I was on a plane in California a couple of weeks ago and the person sitting next to me recognized who I was. Now, that’s weird. At times, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”  
Always passionate in his conservative beliefs, Mulvaney is known inside the Beltway as someone who can disagree without being disagreeable.
When it comes to policy – and especially how taxpayer dollars are spent – Mulvaney said clashes are inevitable.
“The president really has put a group of people together that don’t agree, which is why I got the job,” he said. “We might not see eye to eye on everything, but that’s what he wants, different perspectives. There are some in the White House who are as contrary as I am, and some who are not…. I’m the same person.”

Media rifts
Mulvaney said the current rifts between the press and the White House are frustrating.
“I don’t expect a good reporter to be one who gets my words verbatim,” he said. “That’s almost impossible and must be within context of the conversation.
“What we hope for is, if I take ‘Position A’ on something, that when the reporter conveys it to the media, that it’s consistent with ‘Position A.’ And that it’s not taking your words and bending them into ‘Position B.’ It’s almost as if they’ve written their stories before they even ask the questions.”
As an example, Mulvaney cited a conversation he had last week with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate last year. Mulvaney said Kaine asked him, “What is someone supposed to think when they read the headline ‘Trump to slash Medicaid’?
“I said, ‘Senator, that’s a great question. I wonder what they would’ve thought if the headline says ‘President expects better care for less money,’ but you never see that headline,’” he said. “It’s the same facts out of the same narrative, but to me, it’s not news anymore. It’s opinion. That’s where I get a little combative with the press.”

Avoiding SNL
He noted that there’s one kind of TV coverage he has successfully avoided so far.
“As long as I’m not getting spoofed on Saturday Night Live, I guess I’m OK. They just wrapped up their season, so hopefully I’m safe until next fall,” he said.
Mulvaney’s new job is a lot different from his old one. He had served in both the S.C. House and Senate before going to Congress in 2011. He was elected to his fourth term last year. As a U.S. representative, he had a staff of 14.
Now he oversees 500 employees, which makes OMB the largest office within the executive branch of the federal government. He reports only to the president and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.
“What I miss the most is the camaraderie – Trey Gowdy, Tim Scott, Jim Jordan…. I was working with those guys all the time.”
The required learning curve in his new job was steep, even though he knew a lot about the budget process.
“I was probably as up to speed as anyone could be,” he said.
In looking at his life, Mulvaney said he was stunned to see how “accidents” prepared him for his cabinet position.
“I couldn’t have picked better committees to learn about how the budget works,” he said, noting that his assigned committees in the U.S. House included, Budget, Small Business, Financial Services, and Oversight and Government Reform.
“When the folks from OMB come in and explain what they do, at the very least I understand the language,” he said. “I’ve been able to get up to speed quickly and get down to the policy.”    

What’s next?  
Now that the budget process is over for the year, Mulvaney said his priorities for the next six months will be management of the government’s finances.
His next tasks are figuring out how to get Congress to do two things: raise the national debt ceiling and keep the federal government operating when the current spending authorization runs out in September.
When the two-week-long Fourth of July recess is counted in, Mulvaney said he has five weeks to figure out how to fund the government’s continuing operation.
“That’s not that far away, especially when Congress is off all of August,” he said.
But he said the high stakes and tight deadlines are not stressing him out.
“Stress comes from doing stuff you don’t want to do in the circumstances you don’t want to do it,” Mulvaney said. “Intensity is different. That’s doing what you like and doing it a lot. This is a really intense job…. It’s 100 mph all the time.”
Asked about his future aspirations, Mulvaney laughed and shrugged.
“I still tell people I haven’t made up my mind as to what I want to be when I grow up,” Mulvaney said. “I will stay as long as the president will have me and as long as my wife will let me do it. If he says I have to go, then I’m gone. If she says I have to come home, then I’m coming home. That’s always been the rule.”