By Saleha Mohsin and Jordan Fabian / Bloomberg News
WASHINGTON — Two of Donald Trump’s most senior aides, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and White House counsel Pat Cipollone, are clashing over who should direct the president’s response to the House impeachment inquiry, according to people familiar with the matter.
Cipollone sees impeachment as his domain because he views it as a legal matter and has privately complained to colleagues that Mulvaney is trying to wrest control, the people said. Mulvaney believes he’s in charge because impeachment is political and expects Cipollone to report to his office, they said.
Complicating the dispute between the officials, Mulvaney has fallen out of favor with some of the president’s allies after high-profile stumbles handling the impeachment inquiry, and Trump last month privately tested the idea of replacing him. By contrast, Cipollone enjoys the support of Trump and senior adviser Jared Kushner, positioning the lawyer to outlast Mulvaney.
The animosity between two of the highest-ranking administration officials threatens to further muddle Trump’s impeachment defense as the White House struggles to respond to a torrent of revelations in the House probe. The White House’s strategy hinges on keeping congressional Republicans unified by portraying the probe as a partisan and illegitimate exercise.
Asked for comment on the dispute, White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said in a statement: “The president values discussion and debate amongst staff so he can ultimately make an informed decision — and once he does, we are responsible for carrying it out.” She said all divisions report to Mulvaney and that “We are one team and we all work together well.”
House Democrats are opening the public phase of their impeachment inquiry next week with some of the central witnesses who have detailed the president’s pressure on Ukraine to investigate a political rival.
Cipollone and Mulvaney argue regularly, two people said, over impeachment, judicial nominations and other issues. Mulvaney recently complained privately that Cipollone hasn’t aggressively coached White House staff on their rights when subpoenaed by the House, and hasn’t been explicit about whether they should testify, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
As the personal dispute escalates, Trump’s Republican allies in the Senate are growing concerned that the White House defense is inadequate as more damaging information is released about his efforts to get Ukraine’s president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has privately expressed to the White House that he is dissatisfied with the administration’s strategy, one of the people said. McConnell’s office declined to comment.
McConnell has yet to offer a vigorous public defense of Trump’s conduct. The Kentucky Republican also allowed passage of a September resolution pushed by Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York urging the White House to let lawmakers see a whistle-blower’s complaint about the president’s actions.
Mulvaney damaged himself with an Oct. 17 news conference in which he said that aid to Ukraine was frozen to pressure the country to investigate the president’s political rivals — the question at the heart of the impeachment debate.
The news conference was to announce that Trump’s Miami golf resort had been chosen to host the 2020 Group of Seven summit of world leaders — a decision the president later reversed in a tweet following heavy criticism. Mulvaney’s comments on Ukraine came in response to reporters’ questions.
Cipollone was privately critical of Mulvaney’s performance and was caught off guard by his comments about Ukraine, according to one person familiar with the situation. Officials from the White House counsel’s office met with Mulvaney’s staff to discuss the news conference before it took place, according to another person.
Even as Mulvaney and Cipollone vie for authority, the White House is taking steps to shore up its public relations strategy on impeachment. Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and former Treasury Department spokesman Tony Sayegh are expected to join the team working on impeachment, according to a senior administration official.
Mulvaney himself has been summoned to testify in the House inquiry on Friday, though a White House official said he won’t appear.
For almost a year, Mulvaney has served as chief of staff in an acting capacity because Trump still hasn’t given the permanent title to him. Mulvaney had been a conservative House member from South Carolina, picked by Trump to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget. The president then tapped him to replace John Kelly, who resigned in December, as chief of staff.
The president appointed Cipollone, a Washington attorney, in October 2018 — before Mulvaney became chief of staff — to replace departing White House counsel Don McGahn. At a White House event on Wednesday, the president described Cipollone as “the strong, silent type.”
Mulvaney and Cipollone have clashed in the past over judicial appointments, one of the White House’s top priorities and an issue important to Trump’s conservative supporters.
Mulvaney pushed for the elevation of his close friend, U.S. District Judge Halil Suleyman Ozerden, to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals over the objections of the White House counsel’s office and conservative groups, according to one person. The move sparked resentment in the counsel’s office, the person said.