Mick Mulvaney has been Trump's chief of staff for barely two weeks, and already anonymously sourced reports about friction between the president and the man responsible for running half of his administration are beginning to circulate, encouraged by Axios' "extremely credible" White House leak receptacle Jonathan Swan.
In what sounds like a nearly verbatim regurgitation of the same anonymously sourced reports about Trump's very public chiding of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Axios reported that Trump aggressively criticized Mulvaney during a Jan. 4 meeting in the White House situation room in front of members of the administration and the Democratic leadership.
The encounter came near the end of a meeting in the White House Situation Room on Jan. 4, these sources said. Trump had spent the meeting restating his demand for $5.7 billion for his wall. (Vice President Pence, at Trump's behest, had previously asked the Democrats for just $2.5 billion.)
When Mulvaney tried to insert himself into the conversation and suggest a compromise sum, Trump reportedly lashed out at him and accused him of having "fucked it all up."
Mulvaney inserted himself into the conversation and tried to negotiate a compromise sum of money, according to the sources in the room. Mulvaney said "that if Dems weren't OK with $5.7 [billion] and the president wasn't OK with $1.3 [the Democratic offer] ... he was trying to say we should find a middle ground," one of the sources said, paraphrasing Mulvaney's remarks.
Trump cut him off ... 'You just fucked it all up, Mick,'" the source recalled Trump saying. "It was kind of weird."
Another source who was in the room confirmed the account. That source said their impression was that Trump was irritated at Mulvaney's negotiating style. "As a negotiator, Trump was resetting," the source said. "Mick was not reading the room or the president."
However, an anonymous Trump Administration official said the story that was purportedly affirmed by two of Swan's sources was "an exaggeration" of what really happened, adding that the two men "joked about it after."
A White House official, who was in the room, responded to Axios' questions about the encounter: "This is an exaggerated account of the exchange that doesn't reflect the good relationship Mulvaney has built over the last two years with the president." (The official did not deny the quote we provided, but denied that it was as heated a moment as some in the room perceived it to be.)
The same WH official said, "The president and Mulvaney joked about it afterwards."
Another source, who was not in the room, said Trump harbors some lingering aggression toward Mulvaney because the latter's latest budget proposal penciled in $1.6 billion in funding for the wall, which the Democrats have used as ammunition to push the administration to accept their funding proposal, which calls for a similar amount.
A fourth source, who was not in the room but has observed Mulvaney and Trump's interactions during previous congressional talks, told me Trump has long been irritated that Mulvaney's initial 2019 budget only requested $1.6 billion for the wall. Democrats relish pointing this out, asking the White House why they're not happy getting the money they originally asked for.
The answer: Trump signed off on that budget, but as we've previously reported, Trump privately asked, in a 2018 meeting attended by Mulvaney, "Who asked for $1.6 billion?"
Axios described the incident as an example of why the budget talks have hit an impasse - because Trump is unwilling to follow the recommendations of his closest advisors.
But in reality, Trump has few incentives to cave to Democrats, given the level of opposition to his plans to build the wall, playing hard ball might seem like the only sensible solution.