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White House Chief Of Staff Mick Mulvaney Discusses Border Security Negotiations


Groundhog Day was nine days ago. You would not know that from the state of play here in Washington today, where Democrats and Republicans are fighting over border security, scrambling to put together a deal that the president will sign and racing against the clock to prevent a government shutdown again.


The president is rallying supporters tonight in El Paso, Texas. Congressional negotiators have been huddling, trying to reach a breakthrough. We'll hear more on those efforts from Capitol Hill in a moment. First, let's hear the view from the White House.

KELLY: And for that, we bring in White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. Mr. Mulvaney, welcome.

MICK MULVANEY: Mary Louise, thanks very much.

KELLY: If I asked you to put a number on the chances that these negotiations will produce a deal by the end of the week that the president will actually sign, what would that number be?

MULVANEY: More than zero.

KELLY: (Laughter) OK.

MULVANEY: But, I mean...

KELLY: It's a low bar, but it can only get better.

MULVANEY: It is. And the reason I'm sort of - I don't know the best way to answer your question is that there's all sorts of different kinds of deals. There's a deal that would be a compromise that everybody could agree to and say, OK, we gave a little bit on something over here. The Democrats gave something over there. And we all sort of are equally happy and unhappy at the same time, which is the nature of a compromise, and we sign that.

Then there could also be a circumstance where Congress is completely incapable of getting anything, and you end up with what's called a continuing resolution for either a week or a year and it gets signed simply because nothing else could be done. Both of those things could be signed. So the answer to your question to both of those would be yes. But that doesn't mean that one of them is not better than the other.

KELLY: The sense that we are hearing from congressional negotiators is that things are looking less rosy than they were on Friday, that the talks are stalled. Is that also the sense from the White House?

MULVANEY: I think that's a fair statement. And here's what happened. And I don't know where this came from. But somehow in the last - I don't know - 24 to 36 hours, the debate has changed and moved away from the border wall, the border barrier, the border fence - whatever you want to call it - and on to the issue of how many people that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is permitted to detain in their law enforcement capacity. And Democrats want to put a statutory cap on that to limit the number of people that ICE can detain in the nation.

KELLY: This is the issue over the number of ICE detention beds.

MULVANEY: Beds, exactly - well, and the bed is a - a person has to - when we detain them, they have to sleep someplace at night. So the measure is the number of beds that we have. That equates to the number of people we can detain.

KELLY: Democrats would argue that putting a cap on the number of those beds would force the administration to prioritize deportation for criminals and people who pose real security threats and not law-abiding immigrants. But since you and I are unlikely to solve the bed issue right now...


KELLY: ...Let me focus you on this. You were on the record over the weekend saying you cannot rule out the possibility of another shutdown. Would you enlarge on that? I mean, how willing is the White House to go there, to actually put another shutdown, like the 35-day one we all just lived through, on the table?

MULVANEY: Sure, and there's two answers to that. One is sort of philosophical, about the role of the executive branch of government vis-a-vis the legislative. And the other one is a little bit more detailed and technical. So let's deal with the first one first, about the separation of powers. A shutdown technically is always on the table for any executive.

As soon as the president says, I'll never shut the government down, what they're technically doing is giving up their right to veto a bill. And what they're saying is, I'll sign anything that you put in front of me because I have taken a shutdown off the table. That's...

KELLY: But in this case, why? If I could just push you there, why...


KELLY: ...Not take it off the table and say, look, whatever you guys come up with, we'll live with it...


KELLY: ...Because it's not worth putting the country through this again.

MULVANEY: Well, but what if they come up with something - again, you're talking about a bill, I don't know how many - this is seven bills put together. We were talking about DHS, but there's actually six other pieces of government that are not funded. So you're talking about a bill that's at least several hundred pages, if not several thousand.

KELLY: But you've got serious Republican negotiators in there. Do you think they're going to come up - that they would sign off on something that would be so unpalatable to the president?

MULVANEY: It is theoretically possible. And that's why I said the shutdown could never be off the table for that. Now we're moving into the second half of my first answer, which is that it gets a little bit more detailed. Yes. So put aside the philosophical concerns about the separation of powers.

And now you - here you are in the discussion about how we're going to fund border security, DHS, all the other parts of government that are unfunded - Treasury, the White House itself. And if the president got something on his desk that contained a bunch of things that he simply could not agree to, then he has to retain the right to veto.

KELLY: How does holding a campaign rally in El Paso tonight help solve the impasse?

MULVANEY: I think we get a chance to shed some light on the importance of border security. The story of El Paso has been told from both sides of the equation now for about a week.

KELLY: But doesn't a campaign rally with the president's supporters, the base - that's who's going to turn out. How does that help advance bipartisan negotiations?

MULVANEY: Oh, I don't - I don't think it hurts it by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, the president still has the ability to go out and speak to people directly. In fact, when he speaks to people directly, he does extraordinarily well. We found out today that Rasmussen has his approval ratings above 50 percent for the first time in a long time.

In fact, I think they're the highest they've ever been, at 52 percent. So when the president speaks directly to people, he does well, and his message gets across - just like Democrats are speaking to their base at the same time. It's how politicians communicate with people.

KELLY: Changing gears in the minute or so that we have left.


KELLY: The president's private schedule keeps leaking, including the amount of time that he spends in so-called executive time. You have found - have vowed to find the leaker this week. How are you going about that?

MULVANEY: There's certain things we can do to try to find out who accesses certain documents and so forth. It's the same thing that everybody would do at any company when they're trying to find out who's leaking information.

And really, it's not because the information is that sensitive. The material that was leaked out was something that's very close to the public budget that we show. It's just that the effort that this person went to collect this data for 30 days.

KELLY: The president has been tweeting about this. Today he tweeted - and I'll quote - "no president has ever worked harder than me." Why is this a subject that - his executive time - that he is - that he's sensitive about?

MULVANEY: Well, I think he's being accused of not working, which I think anybody would be sensitive, especially when you've had such - such productive time in office. We could go down another time as to the accomplishments we've had in the first two years of the administration. But I think he's offended by the fact that people don't think he works when he's starting at 6 o'clock in the morning and going till 11 o'clock at night.

KELLY: We will leave it there. Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, we appreciate it. Thanks for your time.

MULVANEY: Mary Louise, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.