Mulvaney commentary: No surprise Mattis out over Syria

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Mick Mulvaney is the White House budget director and the president’s acting chief of staff.

Editor’s note: Mick Mulvaney, former 5th District congressman from Indian Land, became President Donald Trump’s acting chief of staff last month, while keeping the title of White House budget director. On Dec. 23, he appeared on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” Here are excerpts from his interview with correspondent Jon Karl.

Jon Karl: Joining us now is Mick Mulvaney, just named acting White House chief of staff. This is his first interview since being given the job, and he’s also been at the center of the shutdown negotiations as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Let me start with the negotiations. Where do they stand right now?
Mulvaney: We met most of the day yesterday (Dec. 22). The vice president and I were on the hill, meeting with Democrat leadership, Mr. Schumer, also various members of the Republican Party. We gave them an offer late yesterday afternoon, and we’re waiting to hear back.
Karl: What’s the bottom line for the president? Is he willing to accept anything that does not include money specifically to build a new border wall?
Mulvaney: No, the president’s not going to not accept money for a border wall. Now, what one people call a wall and another person might call a fence. The Democrats offered us – I think they offered us $1.6 billion a couple weeks ago, then they offered the president $1.3 billion this week. That’s a negotiation that seems like it’s going in the wrong direction. We’ve insisted on $5 billion, but now we’re between $1.6 billion and $1.5 billion.
Karl: I was out with the president throughout the presidential campaign. Mexico was going to pay for this wall, from day one. Now, the president has forced a government shutdown because he’s insisting that American taxpayers pay for that wall. What gives?
Mulvaney: If you ask the president, he’ll point you immediately to something else that didn’t get a lot of news in the last couple weeks, which is this new U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement, USMCA, which is so much better for us than the NAFTA deal that American workers are going to do better, the government is going to do better and you could make the argument that Mexico is paying for it in that fashion.  
Karl: But none of that is Mexico paying for the wall. Let’s just be clear about this.…
Mulvaney: Technically. You and I both know that it cannot work exactly like that. I can’t spend any money at the Office of Management and Budget from Mexico. We have to get it from Treasury.
Karl: There’s been one proposal that’s been put forward by Newt Gingrich together with Don Graham, the former publisher of The Washington Post. They are proposing a compromise where the president gets his money for the wall and he also agrees to allow a path to citizenship for the Dreamers.
Mulvaney: The president has made it very clear that he is willing to discuss a larger immigration solution. Citizenship I think is one of those things that many folks in our party disagree with. I think a lot of folks in our party support some type of status.
Karl: So this shutdown happens amid a brutal week on Wall Street. The president we’ve heard over and over again talk about the stock market as basically a barometer of his leadership. So does he – now that we are seeing this dramatic downturn – bear some responsibility for that?
Mulvaney: Oh, no. The fundamentals are still strong. Unemployment is still low, capital investment is still high, GDP is still growing at above 3 percent. All of the things that the president said that his economic policies would deliver have delivered. The stock market goes up, the stock market goes down.
Karl: You’re one of the real deficit hawks. How crushingly disappointing is it to you to see what has happened to the federal deficit and federal spending? We are approaching a trillion dollar deficit.
Mulvaney: It’s hard. It really is. We introduced a budget two years ago that would have balanced. I just can’t convince – the president can’t convince – Congress to go along with those things.
Karl: Let’s move to Defense Secretary Mattis. Was the president surprised when Mattis handed him that letter of resignation? And did he try to change his mind, try to get him to stay?
Mulvaney: I don’t know. I’m going to give you an educated guess. No. I think the president had known for quite some time now that Secretary Mattis and he did not have the same worldview… could never get on the same page. The president has told people since the campaign that he wanted to get out of Syria. I think he’s entitled to have a secretary of defense who’s committed to that same end.
Karl: OK, let’s talk about your new job. You’ll be the third chief of staff in less than two years. How are you going to succeed where your predecessors failed?
Mulvaney: I had a conversation with James Baker, widely regarded as one of the great chief of staffs last week, and he reminded me – you’re not the chief of the president, you are the chief of the staff. You’re not going to change the way the president behaves, the president thinks, the president operates.
When we were over at OMB, we had this mission that we were going to be quietly competent. I don’t think you can be quiet in the chief of staff’s office, but I think you can be sort of calmly competent, and that’s what we’re going to bring to the office.
Karl: So you’re the acting chief of staff. How long do you expect to stay?
Mulvaney: I don’t know. Every position in the administration is temporary. We all serve at the will of the president. He could fire all of us tomorrow, and everybody knows that.