Mulvaney getting second-guessed over his defense of Trump

WASHINGTON (AP) — For Mick Mulvaney, the hits just keep on coming.

First, President Donald Trump's acting chief of staff stirred up a tempest by acknowledging that the administration had held up aid to Ukraine in part to prod that country to investigate Democrats and the 2016 elections. Then Mulvaney went on television Sunday to defend his boss in effusive terms — and ended up making a new problematic comment.

Explaining why Trump had tried to steer an international summit to one of the president's own properties before giving up on the idea, Mulvaney said Trump "still considers himself to be in the hospitality business." That did nothing to allay concerns that the Republican president has used his office to enrich his business interests.

The bookended performances over the span of a few days were panned by the president's allies and cast doubt on Mulvaney's job security at the White House.

Mulvaney denied on "Fox News Sunday" that there was any consideration of his resignation, "Absolutely, positively not."

At a press conference on Thursday, Mulvaney tried to put a positive spin on Trump's selection of his Doral, Florida, golf resort to host next year's Group of Seven world summit. It was also an opportunity for Mulvaney demonstrate his ability to defend the president.

He struggled, in the process offering fresh fodder to critics of a president already besieged by an impeachment inquiry. He asserted in the briefing that military aid to Ukraine was delayed partly because Trump wanted officials there to look into a security company hired by the Democratic National Committee that discovered that Russian agents had broken into the committee's network in 2016.

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)

"The look back to what happened in 2016 certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation," Mulvaney told reporters. "Did he also mention to me in the past the corruption that related to the DNC server? Absolutely, no question about that." Mulvaney continued: "That's why we held up the money." Trump's personal lawyers quickly dissociated themselves from the chief of staff's comments.

Mulvaney's description of the administration's handling of the Ukraine aid amounted to a quid pro quo, though he later claimed his comments had been misconstrued.

"That's not what I said," Mulvaney told "Fox News Sunday" as host Chris Wallace repeatedly confronted him with his own comments. "That's what people said that I said."

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to defend the comments in an interview Sunday with ABC's "This Week."

"I will leave to the chief of staff to explain what it is he said and what he intended," Pompeo said.

Mulvaney is unaware of any effort to replace him, according to a person close to him who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. The president has also expressed his support for Mulvaney to the acting chief of staff's team, the person said. Press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Sunday afternoon that Mulvaney still has the confidence of the president.

The news conference on Thursday left aides in the West Wing dumbfounded at the former South Carolina congressman's performance and some quarters of Trump's orbit — the Justice Department and Trump's personal attorney, among them — dissociating themselves from his account. The president himself, already angry that Republicans were not defending him on Syria and Doral, was also displeased that Mulvaney only made the headlines worse, according to three White House officials and Republicans close to the White House not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.

Still, a swift dismissal doesn't appear on the horizon, according to nine staffers and outside advisers, who noted the difficulties Trump has faced attracting and retaining high quality White House staff even before the impeachment episode. The shortage of viable replacements has kept other officials in their posts months after he soured on them.

Even before Democrats launched the impeachment inquiry, Mulvaney was on thin ice, with diminished status in the White House. Holding the job of acting chief of staff since January, Mulvaney has frustrated aides who saw him as less willing than his predecessors to challenge the president.

Once Democrats began investigations meant to remove Trump from office, Mulvaney drew the brunt of criticism from presidential allies who felt the White House wasn't prepared to fight back forcefully.

He has also clashed with White House counsel Pat Cipollone, sometimes mentioned as a potential Mulvaney successor, over strategy and tactics in response to impeachment. Mulvaney has complained that he had been iced out of the process, which the lawyer was treating as a legal, not political, matter.

Trump's decision late Saturday to reverse course on his much-criticized plan to host the G-7 at Doral was the latest move that called into question Mulvaney's job security.

Mulvaney had insisted that White House staff concluded that Doral was "far and away the best physical facility" and tried to push back at concerns raised by Democrats and some Republicans that Trump was using the presidency to enrich himself.

Mulvaney said Sunday that Trump was "honestly surprised at the level of pushback" on his choice of Doral.

That notion struck some Trump allies as hollow, because the uproar was resounding in August when the president first floated the idea of choosing Doral. They argued that the president's aides, Mulvaney first among them, either should have persuaded him not to hold it there or devised a better communications strategy.

"Could we have put on an excellent G-7 at Doral? Absolutely," Mulvaney concluded on Fox. "Will we end up putting on an excellent G-7 someplace else? Yes we will."

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