Mar 22, 2020 - Politics & Policy

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.

The intrigue: Trump announced he was moving out Mulvaney for a new chief of staff on March 7, in the midst of the coronavirus' spread around the globe and into the U.S.

  • Then came a twist: Mulvaney thought he was exposed to the coronavirus and went home to South Carolina to quarantine himself.

Flashback: Two former White House chiefs of staff who learned the ropes during national crises shared their thoughts with Axios.

  • "He’s got to make sure that all of the other responsibilities that the president has to meet are understood," Andrew Card, chief of staff to George W. Bush during 9/11, told Axios. "You can't allow the president to be completely consumed by the crisis because he has other responsibilities to meet at the same time."
  • Card added that he thinks Meadows is "a little bit more of a creature of Washington than most people would expect," which could help him in this particular role. "I think during his time in Congress he became a good student of Washington, D.C."
  • "This is a weird time to have the transition of a chief of staff," said former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was Barack Obama's first chief of staff amid the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis.
  • "He has one thing — Trump's trust," Emanuel said, but warned that for Trump's previous chiefs, that's been a commodity with an expiration date.
  • A former congressman himself, Emanuel said one day "your staff size is 18" and suddenly you're thinking about the entire federal government. "The White House itself is a multiple of 10" to a lawmaker's staff.

Behind the scenes: Mulvaney, who'd been preparing to depart for months, has been active in the transition period.

  • The two worked out a shadowing system where Meadows followed Mulvaney "basically around the clock," as one source familiar described it.
  • But during that process, Mulvaney's niece, Maggie Mulvaney, came into close contact at Mar-a-Lago with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's press secretary, who later tested positive for the virus. Soon after, she began exhibiting flu-like symptoms.
  • Because Mulvaney and his niece share an apartment in D.C., Mulvaney decided to self-quarantine at his home in South Carolina — leaving Meadows to navigate the halls on his own.
  • Mulvaney planned his return after Maggie's test results came back negative, two people familiar with the test told Axios. (Meadows declined to comment for this story, and the White House didn't respond to a request for comment.)

Between the lines: Mulvaney's already diminished power, compounded by his absence, left a vacuum filled largely by Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who already wields significant influence internally.

  • That could impact Meadows' ability to take command of the staff as he embarks in his new role.

While Meadows has been reporting to the White House daily, he's also deferred on the coronavirus response, observers said.

  • "He’s taken a hands-off approach [to the response], and the transition has been very methodical, working closely with Mulvaney the entire time," a White House official tells Axios. "An 'I’m the captain now' attitude has never been his style and never will be."
  • Meadows already has spent a lot of time in the West Wing and has a close working relationship with Trump.

The big picture: Meadows will be Trump's fourth chief of staff in a little more than three years.

  • General John Kelly, Trump's second chief of staff, operated with an iron fist, working to restore order to the West Wing following his predecessor, Reince Priebus, who was seen as wielding insufficient control.
  • Mulvaney took a more hands-off approach, especially when it came to trying to manage the president himself. "Mick really cast the role in that he let Trump be Trump," one administration official told Axios.
  • The official said that "there are a million more similarities between Meadows and Mick than differences. The two of them are very close in policy and in how they view the job."

But unlike Mulvaney, who brought on several members of his team at the Office of Management and Budget, Meadows will "have more of a lean shop," the administration official said.

  • "Don’t expect him to bring over a lot of policy people" and try to populate the West Wing, the official said. "He might take a few with him, but not a whole team."

Editor's note: This post has been corrected to reflect that Meadows will be Trump's fourth chief of staff.

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