Mulvaney settles in at nation’s top consumer watchdog agency

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney promised big changes to the nation's top consumer watchdog agency Monday, but that it would "stay open" for now.

“Rumors that I’m going to set the place on fire or blow it up or lock the doors are completely false,” Mulvaney said during a news conference at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Monday.

But, he added, "Anyone who thinks that a Trump administration CFPB is the same as an Obama CFPB is wrong."

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney
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Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney
White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney announces that the G7 will be held at Trump National Doral, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 17: Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney answers questions during a briefing at the White House October 17, 2019 in Washington, DC. Mulvaney answered a range of questions relating to the issues surrounding the impeachment inquiry of U.S. President Donald Trump, and other issues during the briefing. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney arrives to answer questions from reporters during a news briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 08: White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney speaks to members of the media after a House Republican Conference meeting September 8, 2017 at the Capitol in Washington, DC. Mulvaney was on the Hill to push for the Trump Administration's Hurricane Harvey relief and debt limit package. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), holds up what he described as U.S. President Barack Obama regulations during a White House press briefing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, July 20, 2017. Mulvaney has called Trump's tax-cutting approach to the economy MAGAnomics, a spin on Trump's campaign slogan, 'Make America Great Again' and has repeatedly attacked the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) for its estimates on the impact of Republicans' plans to repeal and replace Obamacare. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, speaks about 'MAGAnomics' during the daily press briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, DC, July 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 21: OMB Director Mick Mulvaney testifies during a Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee hearing on the budget for the Office of Management and Budget on Capitol Hill on June 21, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - Budget Director for President Donald Trump, Mick Mulvaney explains and defends the administration's 2018 budget to the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC Wednesday May 24, 2017. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 24: OMB Director Mick Mulvaney testifies before a House Budget Committee hearing in Longworth Building titled 'The President's FY2018 Budget' on May 24, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Mick Mulvaney, director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), listens during a House Budget Committee hearing on U.S. President Donald Trump's fiscal 2018 budget proposal in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. Trump would dramatically reduce the U.S. government's role in society with $3.6 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years in a budget plan that shrinks the safety net for the poor, recent college graduates and farmers. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 23: Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney holds a news conference to discuss the Trump Administration's proposed FY2017 federal budget in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House May 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. Calling it a 'New Foundation for American Greatness,' the $4.1 trillion budget for would cut programs for the poor, including health care, food stamps, student loans and disability payments while offering big tax cuts for the wealthy. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Mick Mulvaney, director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, center, holds a volume of the fiscal year 2018 budget while speaking with Davita Vance-Cooks, director of the Government Publishing Office (GPO), left, during a tour of the GPO production facility in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, May 19, 2017. President�Donald Trump�will send to Congress on Tuesday a proposal for balancing the federal budget within 10 years through deep cuts to discretionary and safety net spending, according to a U.S. official. Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 02: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (R) walks into the briefing room with OMB Director Mick Mulvaney (L) and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly (C), to brief the media on President Trump's budget, at the White House (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), right, speaks as Gray Davis, former governor of California, listens during the Leaders In Global Healthcare and Technology (LIGHT) conference at Stanford University in Stanford, California, U.S., on Thursday, May 11, 2017. The LIGHT conference gathers leaders from a broad cross-section of executives and top policy makers in the health-care field to discuss the latest developments, challenges and opportunities shaping the healthcare industry. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 16: Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney arrives for a briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House March 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. Mulvaney took questions about President Donald Trump's federal budget blueprint which was released Thursday. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 13: U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price (L) and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney talk to reporters following the release of the Congressional Budget Office report on the proposed American Health Care Act outside the White House West Wing March 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. Price said 'We disagree strenuously' with the findings of the CBO report about the Republican's attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US Vice President Mike Pence (R) delivers remarks before swearing in Mick Mulvaney (L) as Director of the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, DC, on February 16, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 16: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (C) Mick Mulvaney (L), swears as new Office of Management and Budget Director, as his wife Pam Mulvaney holds a bible during a ceremony in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on February 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 4: Reps. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., left, and Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., attend a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Rayburn Building titled Semi-Annual Testimony on the Federal Reserves Supervision and Regulation of the Financial System,' November 4, 2015. Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen testified. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Mulvaney, Trump's pick to temporarily lead the agency, has been an outspoken critic of the CFPB and previously advocated for its demise. His new role hasn't changed those “principled misgivings,” he told reporters, though he noted that the Dodd-Frank Act, which created the bureau during the Obama administration, doesn't allow him to do away with it on his own.

“I’m just learning about the powers that I have as acting director,” Mulvaney said. “They would frighten most of you” due to “how little oversight Congress has over me now."

When asked if he would shutter the CFPB if given the legal opportunity, he signaled that he would advocate shutting it down. Other agencies could absorb its watchdog role, Mulvaney argued.

Though Mulvaney described his first day at the bureau as "extraordinarily smooth," it was also plagued with questions and confusion over his legitimacy as acting director.

Mulvaney's opening parry was an email telling CFPB staff to ignore all communication from Leandra English, the agency's deputy director who assumed the acting director role upon former chief Richard Cordray's resignation last week. English sent her own email to agency employees.

In his memo, Mulvaney told CFPB staffers to "disregard any instructions you receive from Ms. English in her presumed capacity as Acting Director" and to report any "additional communications from her...related in any way to the function of her actual or presumed official duties" to the general counsel.

"I apologize for this being the very first thing you hear from me," the memo from Mulvaney continued. "However, under the circumstances I suppose it is necessary."

He encouraged staffers in the office to "please stop by the 4th Floor to say hello and grab a donut."

Mulvaney swatted down reports that both he and English were at work at the bureau Monday. "I can assure you there was one person at work who showed up today to be director," Mulvaney said. "She wasn’t here."

But that doesn't mean she won't be in the future. Mulvaney left English's job status at the bureau unclear as she battles to take charge.

English filed a complaint Sunday night against both the president and Mulvaney, reasoning that the Dodd-Frank Act gave her legal authority to assume the role of acting director when Cordray resigned Friday. Her suit seeks a temporary restraining order to block Mulvaney from taking over the bureau.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee, heard from lawyers for both sides late Monday on the question of who's the real acting director. He said he'll wait to rule until he sees a written response from the Justice Department.

The White House said "the law is clear" — and in their favor.

"Everybody is in full agreement that he's in charge," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday afternoon, adding that the administration believes the bureau will be "much better" run under Mulvaney.

“We’re not going to put political ambitions as the number one priority. We’re going to make sure the consumers are actually being protected, which is what the agency was created for," Sanders said.

The legal quandary didn't stop the OMB director from reporting for duty Monday morning, armed with donuts and confidence. Asked by NBC News if he felt he had legitimate authority over the CFPB, Mulvaney replied, "Yes, yes I do."

Mulvaney has previously argued in favor of killing the bureau, calling it a "joke" in a 2014 interview. Mulvaney was a congressman at the time. But even during his confirmation hearing earlier this year for OMB director, Mulvaney bashed the agency as being "run by essentially a one-person dictator who believes he can’t even be fired by the president but for cause. We have created, perhaps inadvertently, the very worst kind of government entity."

Democrats, meanwhile, have championed the bureau's work and attacked Trump's choice of leader.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., tweeted Saturday: "The only thing that will turn the @CFPB into a disaster is for @realdonaldtrump to ignore Dodd-Frank & name an acting director determined to destroy the agency."

While the administration has painted the CFPB as unruly and ineffective, the young agency has taken several actions that live up to the watchdog role it was created to serve.

In 2016, the agency fined Wells Fargo $100 million for secretly opening unauthorized accounts and funding them with money transferred out of authorized consumer accounts. And just last week, the CFPB ordered Citibankto pay $3.75 million back to customers, as well as a $2.75 million civil money penalty, after misleading student loan borrowers about eligible tax deductions and erroneously charging them late fees.

On Monday afternoon, the CFPB's website did little to shed light on who was in the driver's seat. While its "newsroom" page announced Leandra English as acting director, the "about the director" page could not be reached — even with a direct link.

But Mulvaney already announced the agency's first few changes: A temporary freeze on hiring and the issuance of new rules, steps similar to those taken across other government agencies at the outset of the Trump administration.

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