'He works 20-hour days, calls me at night and wants people to slug it out' - what it's really like when Trump is your boss
The White House chief of staff says people who underestimate the president do so at risk, writes Niamh Horan
A big belly of cloud is rolling over Doonbeg on US President Donald Trump's final day in Ireland. There are murmurs that the 72-year-old commander-in-chief will not venture out for his scheduled game if the weather doesn't go his way. But there he is. In the rain. Practicing his putting at 9am.
For someone who has just visited and held high-level meetings across three countries in three days, you can't deny the most powerful man in the world is nothing if not indefatigable. His energy is just one of the traits that has surprised White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney since he started working for him almost three years ago. While others crashed and burned around him, not only has Mr Mulvaney survived the White House hunger games - but it's on him that the president has bestowed one promotion after the next.
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He is humble when he says Irish readers probably don't know who he is, but if you don't you should. The word 'power' is thrown around too flippantly these days but Mr Mulvaney has it by the bucket load. In his former role as the director of the office of management and budget, he had a say on every bill, every regulation and every executive order in the US. And now he is the president's gatekeeper, controlling the flow of information and access to the Oval Office.
We are sitting in the hotel at Trump International Golf Links in Doonbeg just before he goes off to play a round with his boss and he is happy to give a rare front-line insight into what it is really like working for the most 'box office' politician the world has ever seen.
Hailing from South Carolina, he represented the same 'peach' district as Frank Underwood in the House of Cards. So it's only right to first ask if politics is as ruthless in real life. "If you took all of the evilness and all of the bad in all of the members of Congress and put them together in one person you could never equal Frank Underwood.
"You see little bits and pieces - especially when it comes to process and passing legislation but I remember when he pushed the woman [Zoe Barnes] in front of the train. I thought 'OK that's sort of the end of reality, there's nobody in Washington - nobody in the legislator at least - who is that nasty."
He stopped watching the series after that and got back to reality of the job at hand. Mr Mulvaney, whose great -grandfather hails from Co Mayo, says it takes certain skills to survive: "A thick skin, the ability to be away from your family for extended periods of time and the ability to be nice to people that you don't like."
Dressed in a bright pink jumper and munching on a plate of rashers, he is unassuming in his nature. He mulls over the biggest lesson he has learned since starting to work in the White House.
"Oh. Wow… em the president has unbelievable energy. He works 18, probably 20 hours on most days. And it is really hard to keep up with him. He is 20 years older than I am and it is a very, very high-energy job, which is why we are trying to take advantage of this. When we get a chance to do something recreational like play golf - we want to enjoy it."
I ask if the president ever calls him during the night and his laugh tells me he is tickled by the innocence of my question.
"Oh yeah," he chuckles but he didn't last night."
So what's it like having President Trump as your boss? "It's intense, it's fun - and it really is - come on James give me a third word," he calls over to the press officer standing across the room, "You work with him just as much as I do.."
"Tiring," jokes the young staffer.
"Haha that's why I say intense," laughs Mr Mulvaney. "Its not stressful. Stressful is doing what you don't want to do. Running a marathon is not stressful if you want to do it. Running a marathon is intense if you want to do it. So working is intense but it's not stressful, it is a lot of fun and it is varied. No two days are the same. You can deal with a situation in Iran one day and a meeting with the Queen of England the next and then you could deal with Tiger Woods receiving the presidential medal of freedom. Whatever the opposite of monotonous is. This job is it."
So why has he succeeded with the president where so many have failed? What is it about the pair that makes them get on?
"The president likes hard work. He likes people who know what they are talking about. And he likes people who like what they do. It's no surprise that a couple of people we brought onto the team early in the administration just didn't work out, but I think the president has found the type of person he wants to have around him - that fits that description I have just laid out."
And what of his personality? Every boss likes hard work and enthusiasm but if he could give one piece of advice to someone who is starting work for the president in the morning, what would it be?
"Candour," he says without missing a beat.
"When I got hired, I am probably one of the most fiscally conservative members of the Federal legislator and I got hired by a man who didn't run on fiscal conservative issues. I remember saying during the interview process 'look if he is interested in someone who is just going to say 'yes' to anything he wants then I am not the right person. We are going to disagree, we are going to fight and I am going to do so in a respectful manner. The senior interviewer looked at me and said 'you don't understand - that's what he is looking for.'
In the Oval office, Mr Mulvaney explains how the president manages "by division of ideas". "He wants you to present one side of an argument and wants me to present another side, so that he can see all sides of the issues before he makes a decision."
In the full range of portfolios that come across his desk, Mr Mulvaney says: "We would have some - what outsiders would perceive as - 'aggressive debate' in the Oval office. The president really likes that. He wants a really, really smart and articulate person to take position 'A' and someone else to take the exact opposite position and for them to slug it out. And he will sit there and use that to help him form his final decisions. It has worked out extraordinarily well, I think."
I say that many would imagine a situation where people meekly put forward their views to such a forceful personality. But Mr Mulvaney shakes his head and points to a similar system used by former US president Abraham Lincoln. "He put together what Doris Kearns Goodwin once called 'a team of rivals' ... Lincoln liked that. He thought it was a fertile environment from which to get good ideas."
I wonder if he feels the presidency is a lonely job. Former US president Barack Obama once said he missed the ordinary life, while President Reagan said: "You kind of live like a bird in a gilded cage."
But Mr Mulvaney says the President feeds off the demands of the role: "For some, it might be, and I can see how it would be for President Obama but there are many distinctions between President Obama and President Trump - and he (Trump) is a true extrovert. He draws his energy from being around other people so, no, lonely is not how I would describe the job for him at all. I think he appreciates his private time but I think he likes the activity, he likes the interaction, he likes a bunch of people in a meeting. He will spend hours per day on the phone. In the first chapter of his book The Art of the Deal it explains his day and it hasn't changed much, in terms of making calls, having meetings, going back to making calls, and I don't think he is ever happier than when he is at a rally with thousands of people. That's what he really, really enjoys doing."
So what is the biggest myth he wants to dispel about the President? He replies with a big belly laugh.
"Oooooooh oh there are so many. Where would you like me to start? I'll give you an example. I'll tell you a story. There is a perception that he is only a 'big picture' guy and doesn't pay attention to any of the details - that's not true," he says, "the story I have is from my days as budget director.
"We are going through the budget and the part that we deal with is $1.3trillion, so one million, three hundred thousand, million dollars," he spells out to hammer home the point. "And we are going over line items and I made a small change and he said 'wait a minute, that was different to last year? What was that last year? That was $16m dollars less?' And I said yes. And we move on. It is nothing in overall size of the budget and he identified it. But that's not the story. The story is - we go back six weeks later to do the final versions and sign off and he catches the same line and says 'wait a second, Mick, last month that was a $16m change and now it's a $14m dollar change? What happened to the other two million dollars?' This is something I didn't even see. His attention to detail on the things that he cares about is unparalleled."
Do you think people underestimate him?
"They do so at their own risk."
What's the best thing you have learned from him?
"Oh goodness gracious," he muses, "his management style when it comes to building the team." He says: "I think it will inform whatever I will do next. In terms of bringing in those people who other folks might look at from the outside and say 'there's no way you can make these four people into a team' but [I have seen] if you can encourage healthy debate, sometimes even divisive debate amongst that group you can actually get a really really good end product. That's been a tremendous lesson."
I offer that the president's wife Melania has remained a mysterious character despite her high profile. At 49, she is over two decades' younger than her husband. There is no sign of her that day, apart from a fleeting glimpse before the pair travel home. Wearing a beige trench coat wrapped around her tiny frame and silk head scarf - she leaned in to the president as the pair boarded the chopper later that day and held his hand as he whispered in her ear. It might not be what the president's detractors want to hear but to all intents and purposes, they looked like a happy couple who were in love.
"Yeah, well here is one of those other myths you want to dispel," Mr Mulvaney says. "There are rumours in the tabloids back home that they don't get along. I had never spent any time with them as a couple until I became the chief of staff - I was in the office of management and budget for two years - so I didn't get a chance to spend any time with them then but now [in my new role I see] they just really like each other, which has been great to watch. I get a chance to see them when other folks don't get a chance to see them. I get a chance to see them on the helicopter, I get a chance to see them in the airplane, and they just really enjoy each other's company and you would never get that impression from reading the American tabloids."
I remark how every move they make is imbued with meaning: "Hmm some of the jokes are just terrible as well. On late-night television they are just miserable." With that I say we must turn to the economy.
"Yes - I am familiar with it," he ribs.
When I say we should deal with the peace process first, he replies: "The Middle East peace process?"
And I have to remind myself that when you are dealing with a man who has the whole world on his plate - it's important to stipulate.
"You'll have to specify," he smiles, "I have a bunch of different peace processes moving so..."
So we pare it down. The president said he was happy Brexit would "work out" well for the Irish Border, but never explained why he felt this or how he would ensure it. And so I ask if the president will make the border a red-line issue before signing off on a trade agreement with the UK. Will he ensure that its current status is protected at all costs?
In relation to both Brexit and the peace process, Mr Mulvaney says: "What the president wanted to convey was, look, Britain is going to do what Britain is going to do and that is fine with us - we look forward to strengthening our relationship with the mother country as soon as they are out [of Europe] whether it is under a terms of agreement or not. But at the same time we wanted to say that it was also important to us to see the successes of the Good Friday Agreement maintained. Without going into too much detail - because we are not going to solve the problem for you - and I think the president said that publicly, if not, then I know he said it privately. He said 'Look y'all need to work this out. This can get worked out and it's important to us that it will get worked out.' So I don't want to go into red lines and absolutes and so forth. But we are aware of the Brexit issue, we are aware of the Border issue. We are aware how they are interwoven and it is in our best interests, I think, to see that resolved as part of that agreement. How you do that is going to be up to you. If we can help accommodate that then you know that we are going to be more than willing to do that, but I don't think that this is the type of issue where the Americans come in and say 'oh we have a great idea, why don't you come in and do x'. I am not sure that is going to create any lasting solution."
But would America say to Britain that [no border] needs to be protected 'at all costs' and then America will do a trade deal?
"Again we talk about 'at all costs' and that's red lines and we are going to work with everybody. These are two of our closest friends in the whole world, we are not going to try and pick one against the other. We know it's important, it's important to the British as well. It's important in the North, it's important here [in Ireland] it's the type of thing - frankly, we are a little surprised that it hasn't been able to get worked out yet. It makes you wonder if people use the issue to distract from other issues. Again, I don't have much visibility into that but we are interested in seeing things remaining peaceful and calm and productive."
We turn to Immigration. Will the E3 visa get sorted while you are Chief of Staff?
"Hahaha [US Senator]Tom Cotton is a close friend of mine and I expect to use all of my friendly wiles to get my good friend to support this piece of legislation," he says, "he knows it's a priority for the President, he knows it's a priority for your country as well. I think we will get him there sooner, if not later.
"By the way, a great example of a team effort are the E3 visas," he says pointing to Senator John Deasy and Senator Mark Daly. They, he says "really got this started four years ago".
He reaches for his plate of rashers. "This is breakfast," he says chowing down.
Does he think Ireland should consider following Britain out of Europe?
He laughs, "You are asking a conservative right-wing Republican house freedom caucus member from the south if you should secede?... Our natural inclination is to throw off somebody else's leadership. No, I am joking, I hope it comes across as tongue-in-cheek and we have no position on that at all. You and the mother country are two of our closest friendships. We want everybody to do extraordinarily well and I think you guys can figure out a way to do that without too much intervention from us. If you know the history of South Carolina, they say we are too small to be a nation, too big to be an insane asylum. We actually started a war against an international military power before we had a standing army. So, yeah, we will look to secede from anybody, any chance we get."
So to trade. The president has made no secret of his 'America First' policy but Ireland books eye-watering tax revenue each year from some of America's biggest companies. Does it annoy him and does he feel 'Uncle Sam' should get some of the profits?
"As long as it's above board. I had a good conversation about this with the Taoiseach at the airport. Our interests are mutual. We will make sure everybody is playing by the rules. And that people are not taking advantage of the system towards an end that was not designed when the system was created and if everyone is playing above board, if everyone is playing what you guys call 'straight cricket' then it's no problem. And we have a mutual interest in making sure that businesses are not taking advantage of the rules to reduce the obligations they have to pay taxes. Whether it be in the US or be in Ireland and it is one of the things we can work forward - work together on."
Does the US administration agree with the harmonisation of tax across Europe?
"What y'all set with your tax rates is up to you," he says in his southern drawl, "we like the competition. Ireland threw down the gauntlet with your corporation tax."
He explains: "If you go back and look what happened in the eighties when the US lowered its corporate taxes - that was the lowest in the world at that time. When we made a change 18 months ago, we were amongst the highest in the world. Everyone else beat us at our own game and they learned the value and the benefit of lowering corporate taxes and they were better at it than we were. So now we are back in the game - I think we are down at 21pc, you are still very low - and we think competition is healthy. Whether or not y'all wanna do it uniformly across the entire EU or do it country by country, we don't care, we welcome the competition and we look forward to beating you all at it. There is nothing wrong with a little friendly competition."
I point to the fact that Ireland is one of nine nations on a watch list seen as potentially threatening the US through currency manipulation because of a positive trading relationship, and he says: "I am not sure that Ireland is on the watch list specifically, or is it just the Eurozone that's on the list and I think it may be the latter. As we look across the valuations of currencies, one of the currencies that is typically undervalued is the Euro but only vis-a-vis other countries and Germany is the one we want to pay more attention to, just because of the size of the trade. Our trade with you is lovely and it's great and it's mutually beneficial but it pales in comparison in terms of the size of our trade with Germany."
After the trade war with China and Mexico, Mr Mulvaney says the President's attention will turn to Europe.
"He wants to figure out how to address the long-term and structural imbalances in the trade deficits between the US and the EU and again any time we are talking about the EU it's sort of strange because we are not talking about trade between us and Ireland, which is fairly well balanced," but he says, "Germany is obviously much, much different so, yes, we are focused on our trade relationships with Europe but it's really the trade relationships with Germany and specifically with automobiles that sort of drives that conversation."
Asked if the President would consider imposing blanket tariffs across Europe, he says: "I can't rule anything in and I can't rule anything out. The President will take those on a case-by-case basis."
One area the US administration is very happy on is the number of jobs Irish companies have created in the US.
"You are the 10th largest foreign investor into the United States. For a country that only has five-million people, that is just astounding. Very impressive," he enthuses.
While, on Huawei he says for the first time in the interview "it's a sensitive issue".
"I am going to be careful here," he explains, adding that the Government has concerns: "All we want to do is that - if we buy something from Huawei or sell something to Huawei - that we are only buying or selling to Huawei and that the Chinese government is not part of that transaction. When that becomes the case, then that changes the calculus."
Asked if the US administration has any issues with the company operating here, he says: "Please take this as no slight, but we look at the larger EU and some of the larger nations. I am not familiar with what y'all are doing with 5G and Huawei, but it is a very serious matter for us and we are addressing it as such."
We speak about President Michael D Higgins's recent comments on climate change in which he called President Trump's decision to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change "regressive and pernicious".
"We would respectfully disagree," replies Mr Mulvaney. "We actually believe that actions speak louder than words. We know y'all are taking a lot of actions here. We can see them on the hillsides around here, although not many of them spin all of them time it seems - despite how windy it might be."
He says the US administration took the decision to withdraw because they felt it was hypocritical: "I don't want to be too flip about it, but we thought it was a joke to have China sign on and then do nothing about it and to have India sign on and do nothing about it. They get to beat their chest and tell the world they signed this piece of paper, but if you are not actually cleaning the environment then what good does it do?" He adds that the agreement is tilted against the US in favour of countries like China and India, but adds that "most of their crap ends up in our environment. The plastics that they dump in the river end up on our west coast and the stuff that they put in the atmosphere ends up on our west coast. So we wish that they said they would be more interested in action as opposed to words."
I ask if he is familiar with Ireland's record on climate change. "No," he says, "are you doing well?"
I inform him that we are the worst-performing country in Europe.
"Oh really?" he replies.
And so it's to his golf game and another VIP who is waiting on the course. Mr Mulvaney says he has a handicap of 8 but has never beaten his boss. "The man has the best short game I have ever seen," he explains, "it embarrasses me, slightly, to tell you that I cannot beat a 72-year-old guy but he is just better than I am," - although Mr Mulvaney once won a tournament here in 2003.
I ask if the president will manage to relax, out here. "President Donald Trump and the Donald Trump on this golf course today is going to be just as competitive and aggressive as the guy you see in the Oval Office."
But standing outside on the first tee - as the president tees off - I'm not so sure. He gives it the full welly down the course, then turns jokingly to where we are standing and shouts 'No Mulligans, No Mulligans' [golf parlance for second chances to take a stroke again after a blunder] before his competitors - including golf-pro Brian Shaw and manager Joe Russell - walk up to the box. The snow-white squall from the Atlantic is crashing onto the beach behind him and there is a crisp smell of sea salt in the air. An Irish navy ship sits quietly off the coast and a handful of secret agents are nearby, but apart from that, the President is just another casual guy hitting a round with his buddies.
On the golf course he has told Martin Hawtree, the course designer at Doonbeg that "out here I can forget about Vietnam, I can forget about Korea, I can forget about these things and just be totally relaxed".
Melania seems to be in easy mode, too. Unlike A- listers who have personal stylists on hand she simply had her valet call down to the spa and enquire if one of the local girls could do her hair. She was said to be "very kind and engaging while meeting staff" and while at the resort she ate a diet of fresh vegetables and seafood - while her husband enjoyed scrambled eggs, sausage and a glass of diet coke for breakfast. He had four of his own team oversee staff in the kitchen as they prepared the food - for security reasons - and I am informed he has a medical team of around eight people-including surgeons with him wherever he goes.
He took three Marine-One choppers to Doonbeg - because even 'the Beast' couldn't handle the Clare roads. The couple stayed in the now official Presidential suite and were gifted specially monogrammed dressing gowns by the hotel. As for business - the president enquired how many rounds the club was doing per year and how bookings were at the resort (thanks to Russell and team, business is up on last year both in golf and the hotel operation). As for his own visit, he will be happy to know the 'Trump effect' saw the hotel's website receive a month's worth of traffic in 24 hours, while reservations are up five-fold since the announcement that he would visit).
Meanwhile, inside at the bar, a group of wealthy Americans are waxing lyrical about the booming economy back home. Whether it's a Republican or Democrat, a donkey or an elephant, red or blue, one thing is for sure: the number one leader for the American people is green. Money and jobs rule the day. And if the president continues his record performance then, he will sail into power in 2020.
One more question then before leaving - how does the commander-in-chief like his steak? "Well done, a source says, "He doesn't want any blood."
I guess he likes to save that for his political rivals.