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Mick Mulvaney was a deeply unimpressive chief of staff

Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff,

Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff, listens during a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Ivan Duque, Colombia's president. Credit: Bloomberg/Kevin Dietsch

Might as well be blunt about it: Mick Mulvaney, ousted Friday evening, was probably the worst White House chief of staff ever. And there's no reason to believe his replacement, Mark Meadows, will be any better. If anything, he looks like an even worse fit for the job than Mulvaney.

Mulvaney's main accomplishment seems to be that he was able to hang on to the job, on an acting basis, for more than 14 months. He apparently didn't aspire to anything else. Unlike his predecessor, John Kelly, Mulvaney didn't even try to make the White House run in a professional manner. He seemed happy to carve out a small fiefdom where he could try to implement policy ideas he liked, and that's about it. The main effect at this point seems to be that he saddled Trump with a draconian budget that will be easy for Democrats to attack on the campaign trail (and which Congress tossed in the trash by bipartisan consensus).

Mulvaney reportedly opted out of the foreign policy and national security portions of the job, which means he contributed to the chaos that eventually produced the impeachment of the president. He also made that more likely with his disastrous October 2019 press conference in which he confirmed the quid pro quo alleged as the heart of the Ukraine scandal and told Trump's critics to "get over it." And of course he was the chief of staff for the crucial first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak.

So much for the old chief of staff.

At least Mulvaney sort of had credentials for the job; Meadows doesn't even bring that to the table. He's been in the House since 2013, where he was chair of the House Freedom Caucus from 2017 to 2019. He was one of the leaders in pushing for the 2013 government shutdown, and by all accounts he was advising Trump during the 2018-2019 shutdown. He also was a leader of the effort to remove John Boehner from the speakership, an effort that pretty much backfired on Republicans (and perhaps especially conservative Republicans). That those efforts failed miserably for Republicans seems to be Meadows's most significant qualification for becoming White House chief of staff.

Of course his real qualifications are probably that he's good at flattering Donald Trump, and at nodding along with his conspiracy theorizing and grievance-venting. Trump is said, too, to like Meadows's appearances on Fox News.

None of this has anything to do with the ability to run the government well. Nor is it much of a qualification for helping Trump's political situation.

Historically, the best White House chief of staffs have entered the job with a deep understanding of the federal government and national politics. James Baker, for example, had been undersecretary of Commerce and had run a presidential campaign before he became Ronald Reagan's chief of staff. Leon Panetta had chaired the House Budget Committee and had been director of the Office of Management and Budget before becoming Bill Clinton's second chief of staff. Other good chiefs of staff had served in the White House, giving them a good sense of how the place needed to be run. Meadows doesn't have any of that.

What Trump desperately needs, and very much doesn't want, is someone who will stand up to him and tell him what he has to hear. The next-best-thing is what Kelly did - to at least try to have a professional White House, even if they can't do anything about an unprofessional president. It's unlikely Meadows will rise to that level. Nor is it likely that Meadows will be helpful in coordinating government efforts to fight the pandemic and to react to market and economic turmoil.

What is interesting about Meadows from the point of view of the partisan presidency is the extent to which Trump has elevated House radicals over mainstream conservatives within the Republican Party. This seems unsurprising now, but it's worth remembering that Trump was perceived as relatively moderate during both the 2016 primaries and the general election. Whether it will all lead to empowering or discrediting the radicals should depend largely on results, especially the outcome of the 2020 election. Given the dysfunction of the Republican Party, however, it's hard to say what, if anything, could discredit that faction within the party.

Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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