Former Chiefs of Staff Klain and Mulvaney Discuss Experiences in the White House

Posted Dec 15 2023
Mick Mulvaney, Amna Nawaz, and Ron Klain visited SIPA's Institute of Global Politics.
photos / Eileen Barroso


“Your job is to get all sides of an argument presented to him or her.  You’ve got to make sure that everybody who knows what they’re talking about is in the room.” 

That, said Mick Mulvaney, is how a White House chief of staff puts the president in a position to make key decisions. 

Mulvaney, who served in the role under President Trump from January 2019 through March 2020, joined Ron Klain, who held the same position under President Biden from January 2021 until February of this year, in a candid and lively conversation at SIPA’s Institute of Global Politics. The December 14 event marked the latest installment of IGP’s Across the Aisle series, which brings together political figures from opposing parties . Amna Nawaz, coanchor of PBS NewsHour, moderated. 

In discussing the responsibilities of the chief of staff position, the two men also talked about their own experiences in the White House and more — including their efforts to navigate political crises and find common ground during times of deep polarization. 

If you can't get new information and change your mind, then we don’t have a chance to deal with the issues we have to deal with.
— Mick Mulvaney

The chief of staff, both agreed, is often the one to deliver news to the president, whether good or bad. If you don't want to convey bad news, Klain said, “you shouldn't be doing the job.” 

They offered perspectives on working with Congress, agreeing that the relationship between the two houses of congress is an key dynamic — and sometimes more difficult to navigate than disagreement between political parties. 

The takes were not without nuance: Mulvaney talked about the value of meeting in person, while Klain observed that sometimes members of congress don’t want to appear with the president. 

President Biden speaks with Republicans frequently, Klain said, but “sometimes the stage management of it is more complicated. A lot of Republican senators will say ‘Please don't ask me to come down to the White House.’” 

Among the most notable differences between Biden and Trump is the former’s long experience as an elected official.  

“One of Trump’s greatest strengths was he didn’t have any friends in Washington,” Mulvaney observed. “One of his greatest weaknesses was he didn’t have friends in Washington.” 

Offering a prescription for better cross-partisan collaboration, both suggested it is easier some times than others but essential to tackling the big issues of our time. 

If you don't want to convey bad news, you shouldn't be chief of staff.
— Ron Klain

Humility is a good quality to have, said Klain. “You should listen to other points of view and not have so much confidence in what you believe in that you’re not willing to have a discussion with someone who thinks differently because you could be wrong.” 

“If you can’t change your opinion about something when you get new information one way or the other, then we’re in a lot of trouble,” said Mulvaney. “If you can’t get new information and change your mind, then we don’t have a chance to deal with the issues we have to deal with.”  

As the event drew to a close, both acknowledged that life in Washington can be challenging, but ultimately praised the importance of public service.  

Klain said there are "great opportunities” to get involved in different areas of public policy. 

“Change is slower than you’d like, and often some of the changes you want to see made don’t happen,” he added. “But I think the people who devote their lives to this work are devoting their lives to a very good cause and can make a difference in our country and the world.” 

Mulvaney agreed, putting in a good word for public service outside of Washington: “If you’re really interested in doing something, go give your state government a try, or local government..... It can be a tough business, but it can be very rewarding.”

Watch the complete event:


Keren Signature

This event was made possible due to generous support from the Knight Foundation. About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation: We are social investors committed to fostering a more effective democracy. Our funding supports free expression and journalism, community arts and culture, research into media and democracy, and the progress of American cities and towns where the Knight brothers once published newspapers.