Dec 15, 2019

Trump's yes-men

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

When President Trump tweeted in January that he wanted to cut off disaster aid for California's forest fires, other White House aides might have ignored his forest punditry and hoped he forgot about it — but not the leadership team at the Office of Management and Budget.

The big picture: OMB acting director Russell Vought and general counsel Mark Paoletta made it their mission to find lateral ways to accomplish Trump's goals.

  • Their approach provides a window into how the Trump White House really works.
  • It's a valuable lesson about not just the typical bureaucratic battles that happen inside any White House, but about the specific battles that take place among administration officials with different views on how to treat Trump's demands.

Case in point: It was Vought — who took over the agency from acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney — and his team who came up with the way to help Trump build his border wall by declaring a national emergency that allowed him to use military funds.

  • The White House counsel's office originally objected to the idea, and the administration is now fighting off a court ruling against it. But it's the approach that won the day in the White House and allowed Trump to get what he wanted: the ability to move ahead without Congress..
  • The budget office is also discussing ways to channel Trump's anger about the California wildfires into a policy response — most likely by attaching conditions to disaster relief funding to encourage states to take more preventive steps against future wildfires, like conducting controlled burns to get rid of dead trees.

"The nature of the bureaucracy is that if it isn't status quo, it must be impossible," Vought said. "However, most of the time, when we actually dig into the ways to do what the president wants, we find a way to accomplish it."

Behind the scenes: Some officials treat Trump's frequent venting sessions as a storm that just needs to blow over — or in some cases, be contained. Think Gary Cohn, the president's former top economic adviser, stealing a document off Trump's desk that, if signed, would have ended the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

  • Others, like Vought and his team, take the approach that Trump is the president and he has the right to get what he wants — if there's any legal way to get it done. And in their view, there usually is.

"We view ourselves as the president's Swiss army knife," said Vought. "How do you come up with options that work and then talk through the pros and cons?"

  • Paoletta, a former adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, said the agency has a clear mission: "We embrace the view that the president wants to do something, we're going to see if we can get it done for him. He's the president."

Between the lines: Throughout his nearly three years as president, aides say Trump has often complained about his White House lawyers being too "conservative" and always telling him "no" when he asks for things. In that context, the budget office has become an island of "yes" in Trump's government. They've also netted plenty of enemies and critics from both parties and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other appropriators have publicly criticized acting Chief of Staff Mulvaney and his fiscally hawkish allies at OMB as impossible to work with.
  • Both Democratic and Republican appropriators say they prefer to negotiate with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin as the administration's representative — and that's what has happened in the recent government funding negotiations.

The OMB team has also had a big hand in helping Trump slow down the disbursement of hurricane aid to Puerto Rico.

  • OMB also moved money around in highly unusual ways, at the beginning of this year, in a bid to contain the political damage of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.

The most famous recent example of the budget office's involvement is already well known — it held the Ukraine military aid that's now at the center of House Democrats' impeachment case against Trump.

  • But even here, Vought casts the holdup as no more than pushback against National Security Council and Defense Department officials who just wanted to spend the money — while he wanted to make sure "the president makes this call." (Here is the budget office's new legal memo defending its holdup of aid to Ukraine.

Yes, but: Key senior Trump administration officials have said they formed the view that Trump's freeze of the Ukrainian aid was directly linked to his stated desire, on his phone call with Ukraine's president, that Ukraine investigate the Bidens and the origins of the Russia investigation.

Go deeper

Ukraine aid frozen soon after Trump's call with Zelensky, emails show

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Why it matters: The poll shows that Americans — on the eve of the full House vote on impeachment articles — remain strongly divided on impeachment after weeks of public testimony and committee hearings.

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In six months, a phone call between President Trump and Ukraine's president escalated into a full-blown crisis that is culminating in Trump's impeachment.

What's next: Assuming the House approves articles of impeachment later tonight, Trump will face a trial in the Senate next month — which is likely to end in his acquittal, since Senate Republicans have already been openly dismissive about the merits of the case against him.

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