WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s chief of staff and former national security adviser clashed in court Monday. Two new books describe how top aides to the president secretly plotted to circumvent him. And nearly every day brings more testimony about the deep internal schism over the president’s effort to pressure Ukraine for domestic political help.
In the three years since his election, Trump has never been accused of running a cohesive, unified team. But the revelations of recent days have put on display perhaps more starkly than ever the fissures tearing at his administration. In the emerging picture, the Trump White House is a toxic stew of personality disputes, policy differences, political rivalries, ethical debates and a fundamental rift over the president himself.
The fault lines were most clearly evident Monday when Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, abruptly withdrew his effort to join a lawsuit over impeachment testimony after a sharp collision with his onetime colleague John Bolton, the former national security adviser. Mulvaney retreated only hours after a lawyer for Bolton and his former deputy, Charles Kupperman, went to court arguing that his clients wanted nothing to do with the staff chief because they had vastly different interests.
In withdrawing his motion, Mulvaney indicated that he would now press his own lawsuit to determine whether to comply with a subpoena to testify in the House impeachment inquiry. But it left him at odds with the president, who has ordered his team not to cooperate with the House, an order Mulvaney essentially has refused to accept as other administration officials have until he receives separate guidance from a judge.
Mulvaney’s lawyers emphasized that he was not trying to oppose Trump, maintaining that he was actually trying to sue House Democrats, and an administration official who insisted on anonymity said there was “no distance” between the president and his chief of staff. Still, Mulvaney hired his own lawyer instead of relying on the White House counsel, and he consciously made clear that he was open to testifying if left to his own devices.
The situation underscored long-standing enmity between Mulvaney and the counsel, Pat Cipollone, who have repeatedly been at odds throughout the impeachment inquiry, according to four administration officials briefed on the events.
Mulvaney, who has been left with an “acting” title for more than 10 months and therefore insecure in his position, is said to see Cipollone as angling for his job as chief of staff. People close to Cipollone deny that and say he is not interested, although they acknowledged that there were previous discussions with Trump about such a shift.
Hoping to bolster his own place in the White House, Mulvaney has recommended to Trump that he hire Mark Paoletta, the general counsel at the Office of Management and Budget, where Mulvaney is still technically the director, according to people familiar with the maneuvering. Paoletta would not displace Cipollone but would give Mulvaney an ally on the legal team as the impeachment battle plays out.
Another person familiar with the latest moves said that Paoletta was considered but that West Wing officials decided they were pleased with the hiring of Pam Bondi, a former attorney general of Florida, and Tony Sayegh, a Republican strategist, both of whom began full time this week.
The latest personnel struggle echoed an attempt by Mulvaney several weeks ago to hire former Rep. Trey Gowdy, a fellow South Carolina Republican, to join the president’s legal team. Cipollone and others were said to take issue with the idea, concerned it was an effort by Mulvaney to run his own legal team. Cipollone told allies he had no such concerns, but eventually, Gowdy bowed out, facing an issue with a ban on former House members lobbying Congress.
Despite his own tenuous job status, Mulvaney has privately told associates in recent days that there is no easy way for Trump to fire him in the midst of the impeachment fight, the implication being that he knows too much about the president’s pressure campaign to force Ukraine to provide incriminating information about Democrats.
The court fight between Mulvaney and Bolton on Monday brought their long-running feud into the open. Mulvaney was among those facilitating the Ukraine effort while Bolton was among those objecting to it. At one point, according to testimony in the impeachment inquiry, Bolton declared that he wanted no part of the “drug deal” Mulvaney was cooking up, as the then national security adviser characterized the pressure campaign.
Their clash was just one of many inside Trump’s circle spilling out into public in recent days. The legal conflict Monday came just a day before Nikki Haley, the president’s former ambassador to the United Nations, plans to publish a memoir accusing Trump’s former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and former chief of staff, John Kelly, of conspiring behind his back while in office. Her account in effect is a mirror image of another book coming out this month by an anonymous senior administration official describing how concerned aides mounted their own internal resistance to Trump.
Kelly disputed Haley in a statement Sunday and Tillerson added his own refutation Monday. “During my service to our country as the secretary of state, at no time did I, nor to my direct knowledge did anyone else serving along with me, take any actions to undermine the president,” Tillerson said in a statement.
While he offered Trump frank advice, he said, once the president made a decision, he did his best to carry it out. “Ambassador Haley was rarely a participant in my many meetings and is not in a position to know what I may or may not have said to the president,” Tillerson added.
Tillerson was never enamored of Haley when they were both in office, seeing her as a rival trying to upstage him and run foreign policy from her perch at the United Nations. Haley’s portrayal of herself fighting off Trump’s internal enemies was met Monday with scoffs from several administration officials, who said they were aware of little evidence to back up her self-description. But a former senior administration official who witnessed some of the interactions Haley had with the president described her as heavily involved with policy.
The books are being published at the same time new transcripts are released by the House documenting how Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and a coterie of allies, including Mulvaney, sought to sideline career diplomats and other foreign policy officials who warned against enlisting Ukraine to help the president’s personal political interests.
The dispute pitted one part of Trump’s administration against another in a struggle over foreign policy that now has the president on the precipice of being impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors.
The lawsuit that Mulvaney sought to join was filed by Kupperman, a longtime associate of Bolton, and asked a court to decide whether Kupperman should obey the president’s dictate to stay silent or a House subpoena to testify.
While not technically a party to the lawsuit, Bolton, who left his post in September after clashing with Trump, is represented by the same lawyer, Charles Cooper, and is taking the same position as Kupperman in waiting for the court to decide whether he should testify or not.
Mulvaney’s effort to join the lawsuit late Friday night stunned many involved in the impeachment debate because he still works for the president. Mulvaney did not ask Bolton or Kupperman for permission to join the lawsuit nor did he give them a heads up. Bolton and his team considered it an outrageous move since they were on opposite sides of the Ukraine fight and did not want their lawsuit polluted with Mulvaney.
Not only did the motion filed Monday by Bolton’s camp seek to keep Mulvaney out of the lawsuit, it even advanced an argument that the acting chief of staff may have to testify before House impeachment investigators. The motion noted that in a briefing with reporters last month, Mulvaney appeared “to admit that there was a quid pro quo” before later trying to take back the admission, meaning that he might not have the right to defy a House subpoena since he had already discussed the matter in public.
“Accordingly, there is a serious question as to whether Mulvaney waived the absolute testimonial immunity claimed by the president,” the motion said.
Mulvaney’s lawyers rejected that. “The idea that Mr. Mulvaney has somehow waived broad immunity by speaking about this” at a briefing “doesn’t have any legs,” Christopher Muha, one of the lawyers, told the judge in the case Monday afternoon, according to a transcript of a conference call released by the court.
Nonetheless, Judge Richard Leon, of the U.S. District for the District of Columbia, indicated at the end of the call that he was inclined to reject Mulvaney’s request to join the suit. Mulvaney then withdrew it and said he would file his own separate action.
The motion filed by Bolton’s camp noted that Kupperman does not take a position on who is right, the president or Congress, and “will remain neutral on the merits of the constitutional issue,” while Mulvaney “has made it clear that he supports the executive” branch interpretation.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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