The Trump administration delivered a public service announcement on Tuesday: “We are competent, we know what we’re doing, and the country is safe in our hands.”
On its 103rd day in power, the declaration brought forth comparison to Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s declaration after President Ronald Reagan was shot, “I’m in control here.”
The statement came Tuesday afternoon from Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. He was describing the message sent to the American people by a $1 trillion spending pact President Donald Trump and his team say they worked out with congressional Republicans and Democrats.
Mulvaney veered from message to message during three sessions with reporters in less than 24 hours.
A Tuesday morning call was cut short when reporters with unmuted phones left Mulvaney and questioners trying to talk over all kinds of background noise. (The call was so hastily arranged that Mulvaney and his OMB staff were unable to have reporters’ questions automatically cued by the typical software.)
“This is going to be a disaster,” Mulvaney said as he told those on the line he would attempt to field their questions manually.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” played for several minutes while reporters waited but it might well have been “Yakety Sax.”
The background noise from the reporters’ unmuted phones had led Mulvaney with little choice: he left the call. An automated voice informed callers the conference was over and the host had left.
The patriotic tune blared on.
Mulvaney’s Monday White House briefing room appearance was conventional: It reflected a White House reacting to Hill Democrats’ sophisticated and speedy communications operation. Mulvaney ticked off wins. (More Pentagon, border security, and school choice funding.) And he mentioned things Democrats failed to secure. Standard stuff.
Mulvaney called it “great” that members of the opposition party were pleased with the omnibus bill. “That’s fantastic,” he said. “We thought it was a really good deal for this administration as well.”
His comity and conventional tone, however, were short-lived. By Tuesday morning, Mulvaney was on the conference call with reporters — more agitated and a bit more aggressive.
Democrats clearly were aggressive themselves with their messaging game on the spending package, despite his Monday evening efforts. Cable news chyrons, newspaper front pages, and news outlets’ websites ran lead stories describing Democrats’ collective victory lap. Most included Mulvaney’s comments, but the White House had gotten its side out late in the game.
It was the “American people” who “won” in the spending negotiations because “the president negotiated that for them,” Mulvaney said, crediting Trump directly. Democrats’ boasting shows they are “scared to death” by Trump’s ability to negotiate circles around them, he said.
He took umbrage with Democrats hailing the omnibus spending bill’s inclusion of funds to help retired mine workers: “That’s fine,” he said, adding: “But we wanted it, as well.”
Despite Mulvaney’s angst, presidents and lawmakers of both parties typically rush to point out their wins in a bipartisan bill. Most of Monday was unique not because Democrats had a coordinated strategy for doing so, but because the White House and Republicans did not — aside from some emailed statements.
Mulvaney addressed Trump’s Tuesday morning call for a shutdown in September. The president endorsed the notion of ending the legislative filibuster in the Senate, meaning bills could pass with a simple majority, rather than needing 60 votes to shut off debate.
The reason for the plan negotiated between the Republicans and Democrats is that we need 60 votes in the Senate which are not there! We….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2017
either elect more Republican Senators in 2018 or change the rules now to 51%. Our country needs a good "shutdown" in September to fix mess!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 2, 2017
Mulvaney’s response was hardly full-throated support for the boss: “I think that’s a defensible position.”
The budget director later backed his boss, saying he would be fine with a government shutdown in September if it changes how business is done in Washington. But it was hours — and many published reports about the morning call — later.
The social media blast prompted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to urge GOP congressional leaders to stage an “intervention” with the president.
Mulvaney’s media tour did not end with the circus-style conference call. He later joined Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer at Tuesday’s daily press briefing.
“The Dems have been trying to claim victory on this, which is a very strange way to talk about a bipartisan discussion … and it certainly doesn’t bode very well for future discussions,” he said.
Stranger, however, is the notion that politicians have not for centuries declared victory on bills also supported by their political opponents.
“The president actually cut a tremendous deal for the American people,” Mulvaney said, in pitch mode.
During a contentious briefing, Mulvaney returned to his core message: Democrats celebrated too loudly.
“They want you to think they won, what they don’t want you to know is the American people won here because the president simply out-negotiated them,” Mulvaney said of Democrats.
Democrats’ message about whether the massive bill contains any funds for Trump’s promised border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border seemed to strike a nerve with Mulvaney. “Several hundreds of millions of dollars” that would be allocated by the bill would be used to replace fences currently standing along the border with “20-foot steel wall,” he said.
His staff displayed pictures of those kinds of existing barriers.
“That’s what the Democrats don’t want you to know,” Mulvaney said. He pointed several times and walked over to one of the images, hammering home his point. “This stuff is going up now!”
The more Mulvaney spoke, the more his demeanor departed from previous bean-counting, deep-in-the weeds federal budget directors. The obsession this president and his team have with the media image Trump so often labels “fake news” was on full display.
“They’re walking around acting like they pulled a fast one on the president,” Mulvaney roared from the White House podium. “And I just won’t stand for it!”
Kellie Mejdrich contributed to this report.