Mar 7, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Behind the scenes on Trump's chief of staff switch

Mick Mulvaney and Mark Meadows share a laugh at the White House last month. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was in Las Vegas on an annual trip with his brother and friends on Thursday when President Trump decided the time had come to replace him with Mark Meadows.

Between the lines: Mulvaney tells Axios that he and the president had been talking since November about making the change, that Meadows is his longtime friend and that the transition is happening with his blessing. But like so many Trump personnel moves, its execution sent mixed signals and spawned alternative explanations.

  • Trump had vented about Mulvaney being out of town during the coronavirus crisis, according to two sources familiar with the discussions.
  • One White House official said the president used Mulvaney's absence to pull the trigger on a change he had long been contemplating but had resisted.
  • "Anybody who knows Donald Trump knows that if you're on a slippery slope you shouldn't leave town," said a source familiar with the situation.
  • But one senior White House official disputed any connection between the timing and coronavirus.
  • Mulvaney and the president spoke by phone Thursday and Friday, and Mulvaney told his family and his staff about the change ahead of the president's announcement Friday.

"Meadows and I are friends, and I am excited for him," Mulvaney told Axios' Margaret Talev.

Mulvaney also said he'd told the president more than a year ago about his interest in serving as as special envoy to Northern Ireland. He drew a distinction between this and the president's decision to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. "I did not find out via tweet. I knew this was coming. It's not a surprise."

Behind the scenes: There were plenty of signs that Trump was itchy for a staff overhaul. He brought back former staff he views as staunch loyalists, including his 29- year-old former body man John McEntee and former communications director Hope Hicks.

  • Trump had basically made up his mind he was ready to switch to Meadows before his recent trip to India, one source said.
  • The president views April 1 as transition to the "real" re-election season, said a senior White House official, and wanted key staff changes in place by then.

Don't forget: Last October, Mulvaney's defense of the administration's approach to Ukraine turned up the heat on the president amid the impeachment inquiry.

Mulvaney had been doing his own traveling — including a recent trip to Oxford that resulted in unfortunate headlines, such as him saying Republicans under Trump were hypocrites for no longer caring about debt and deficits.

  • On the same trip, he also traveled to Ireland, which caused him to renew his conversations with the president about the vacancy for the position of special envoy to Northern Ireland.
  • Trump announced on Friday evening, on Twitter, that Meadows would be his chief of staff and that Mulvaney would be special envoy to Northern Ireland.
  • Meadows has been one of Trump's go-to allies on the Hill but has never served in the executive branch.
  • Mulvaney led the Office of Management and Budget and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before serving 14 months as acting chief of staff.

What's next: Meadows and Mulvaney are expected to work together during a transition period through the end of this month.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to remove the reference to former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and how he learned of his replacement for the role.

Go deeper

Becoming White House chief of staff during coronavirus

Incoming White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Mark Meadows is immersed in one of the most extraordinary job training sessions an incoming White House chief of staff can get: how to manage thousands of staffers — and President Trump — in the middle of a pandemic.

The state of play: The retiring Republican North Carolina congressman, who's slated to formally take over Mick Mulvaney's post on April 1, has been coming to the White House daily as he transitions into the job.

Trump names Mark Meadows as White House chief of staff

Mulvaney and Meadows in the East Room of the White House on Feb. 6. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Trump announced on Friday that he will replace acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney with Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.)

Why it matters via Axios' Alayna Treene: Meadows recently announced his plans to retire from Congress, and hinted at a job in the Trump administration. Trump trusts Meadows, and has appreciated his fierce and public loyalty over the past years.

Mark Meadows resigns from Congress to become Trump's chief of staff

Former North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows at the Capitol in December. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Rep. Mark Meadows officially resigned from Congress on Monday, ahead of becoming the new White House chief of staff.

The big picture: Meadows announced last year his retirement from Congress and was named by President Trump as Mick Mulvaney's replacement earlier this month. Per Axios' Alayna Treene, Meadows has been actively preparing for the role during the transition period and has been working closely with Mulvaney. Alayna reported Sunday that he would formally start as Trump's new chief on Tuesday.

Go deeper: Becoming White House chief of staff during coronavirus