With Trump as boss, Mick Mulvaney struggles to deliver on old promises

Mick Mulvaney went to the Office of Management and Budget promising to stay true to his fiscal conservative values, but seven months later he’s let many of his former colleagues down.

Duty-bound to a more populist-leaning President Donald Trump, the ex-GOP congressman from South Carolina hasn’t been able to deliver on many of the items that topped his own agenda on Capitol Hill, notably cutting entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and slashing spending for social welfare initiatives.

He also hasn’t been able to move the needle on some major parochial concerns for the Palmetto State, surprising some members of the South Carolina congressional delegation who might have originally seen a personal advantage to having one of their own in the Trump administration.

“I’ve never served with a Republican administration, so I wouldn’t know what to expect,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who was elected with Mulvaney to Congress in 2010. “I would have thought there’d be more coordination.”

“Mick is a straight shooter, and one thing we can be certain of is, we’re going to get a returned phone call,” Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said of having a fellow South Carolinian at the OMB.

On national issues, Mulvaney has had to make adjustments. He has a new job now, and he’s argued that those who try to hold him to the same standards as when he was a member of Congress are being unfair.

He was bullish on this point as recently as last week, when a roomful of House Republicans scoffed at his pleas for them to support legislation that included hurricane relief aid and a three-month extension of the debt ceiling and government funding. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., joked that Mulvaney should hire away more members of Congress so they, too, could undergo an ideological transformation, a jab that reportedly made the OMB director grow quiet.

“I work for the president of United States. I work for the office of Management and Budget,” Mulvaney told reporters, refusing to answer whether he would have voted for this deal himself were he still a House member. “Ralph Norman represents the 500,000 people I used to represent.”

Norman, a Republican elected to replace Mulvaney in mid-June, voted against the legislative package.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., the chairman of the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he understood his former colleague’s predicament.

“I can tell you he has a very different job now, and a different boss,” Meadows said of Mulvaney, a caucus founding member.

It didn’t, however, make Mulvaney’s transformation feel less disorienting.

“An ex-Freedom Caucus guy is asking for a clean debt ceiling. No betrayal. Just perplexed,” Meadows added.

At the same time, South Carolina lawmakers have watched with some bewilderment as Mulvaney has not yet been able to reverse the Trump administration’s position on the future of the mixed oxide fuel fabrication program, or MOX, at the Savannah River Site in Aiken.

The MOX program was originally launched to reprocess weapons-grade plutonium into commercial nuclear reactor fuel, the result of a 2000 agreement between the United States and Russia to destroy materials no longer necessary in the post-Cold War era.

The project is now years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. The Obama administration fought the South Carolina delegation for eight years to halt the initiative in favor of a cheaper solution.

So far, Trump’s stance has been the same as Obama’s. It’s not clear how forcefully Mulvaney has lobbied his boss for a policy change, but Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., recently pointed out that as a member of Congress, Mulvaney “signed letter after letter in support of the MOX Program.”

South Carolina Republicans are frustrated, but insist they don’t blame Mulvaney personally.

“I’ve called him on behalf of our state, and our nation, to encourage him to take a second look at things like the MOX facility, and done the same on other issues at well,” said Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. He said Mulvaney still joins him and Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., for dinner regularly in Washington. “So we do have the ability to encourage him to make specific decisions. He doesn’t always take my advice, but he always takes my call.”

South Carolinians give Mulvaney credit in one area, making sure the multi-year, multi-billion dollar Port of Charleston project to deepen the harbor to 52 feet can stay on schedule.

In the OMB’s fiscal 2018 budget request to Congress in May, there was no mention of the port being a specific administration priority. The exclusion rattled delegation members and advocates back home who are counting on the project as a major economic boost.

Days after the budget blueprint’s submission, however, the administration announced that the port qualified for $17.5 million as part of the Army Corps of Engineers current work plan and would receive a “new start” designation to receive additional resources.

Barbara Melvin, senior vice president for operations and terminals at the South Carolina Ports Authority, said Mulvaney was instrumental in making sure there was enough money.

Mulvaney was a proponent of the project as member of the congressional delegation, and his familiarity made it easier for advocates to make their case, she explained.

A test of the Trump administration’s commitments to the harbor deepening project – and Mulvaney’s ability to exert influence – will be seen in the next several budget cycles to come. Melvin said the Ports Authority would be asking for roughly $287 million to be staggered over the next three to four federal budgets.

Advocates hoped for a direct “shout out” in subsequent budget proposals, which isn’t necessary for securing funding but helps build the case for support on Capitol Hill, she said.

“Did we benefit because he had a real good knowledge base about what was going on? Absolutely,” Melvin told McClatchy. “Do we feel like we got special treatment? No.”

Brian Murphy contributed to this report.

Contact: Emma Dumain at