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Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney (right) and Rep. Mark Meadows talk as they wait for U.S. President Donald Trump to speak to the media in the East Room of the White House on Feb. 6, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Meadows is replacing Mulvaney as Chief of Staff, Trump announced on March 6.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In the midst of one of the most daunting crises of his administration, President Donald Trump on Friday announced he had made a major staff overhaul, replacing his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney with Republican Rep. Mark Meadows.

While much of the country was focused on the spreading coronavirus, Trump announced the surprise reshuffle by Friday night tweet, saying Mulvaney would become the U.S. special envoy for Northern Ireland.

“I have long known and worked with Mark, and the relationship is a very good one,” he wrote, thanking Mulvaney – who never shook his “acting” title – “for having served the Administration so well.”

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The long-rumoured move comes as Trump has been pulling together a team of loyalists and allies ahead of what is expected to be a bitter re-election fight. But the timing – as his administration was already facing criticism over its handling of the outbreak – threatened to exacerbate concerns about the government’s ability to protect the nation from a virus that has now infected more than 100,000 people worldwide.

Mulvaney had been leading the administration’s interagency response to the virus until Trump designated Vice-President Mike Pence to lead the whole-of-government effort more than a week ago.

It was just one of a long series of downgrades for Mulvaney, whose relationship with Trump began to sour not long after he was named to the position in December 2018. Indeed, Trump had been eyeing the change for many months, according to people familiar with his thinking, but wanted to wait until after the impeachment saga was over to make his move.

Meadows, the one-time leader of the House Freedom Caucus, is a long-time Trump confidant and sounding board, whose political instincts Trump respects. He announced last year that he would not be seeking re-election for his North Carolina House seat, and said at the time that he expected to join Trump’s team in some capacity. He will be Trump’s fourth chief of staff in as many years.

He was officially offered the job Thursday, according to one of the people familiar with the matter, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the changes publicly. Mulvaney was informed Friday.

Some outside advisers had cautioned Trump that making such a high-profile switch during the coronavirus crisis would rattle markets craving stability, and his decision to make the announcement after Wall Street had closed Friday was partly informed by those concerns, the people said.

A former congressman from South Carolina, Mulvaney had portrayed himself as a happy warrior, satisfied with letting “Trump be Trump” as he focused on boosting White House staff morale and wooing lawmakers at the Camp David presidential retreat. And while he never grated on Trump or other White House staffers like the two men who had held the post before him, Mulvaney had been relegated to the sidelines even before a disastrous mid-October news conference in which he insisted quid pro quo was normal when it came to foreign policy, undercutting the president’s position that there was no such thing in his dealings with Ukraine.

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Trump was furious about Mulvaney’s handling of the impeachment probe, and also faulted Mulvaney – who feuded with the White House counsel during the probe – for not mounting a more robust defence of his actions.

Still, his allies had repeatedly brushed off rumblings of his imminent departure and had said as recently as last month that he planned to stay at least through the election in November.

Ever since he was acquitted by the Senate on impeachment charges, Trump has been on a tear to rid his administration of those he deems insufficiently loyal. And he has been assembling a team of trusted confidants as he prepares for a tough re-election fight.

Meadows, a close ally and friend of the president, has made clear to the White House and those close to the president that he has no plans to try to rein in Trump, as others – like Mulvaney’s predecessor, retired four-star Gen. John Kelly – have tried and failed to do.

One person close to Mulvaney insisted he was pleased with the decision to bring in Meadows, noting the two were friends and had served together on the House Freedom Caucus. Indeed, they said Mulvaney had raised the idea of Meadows as chief of staff before he even had the job and discussed the plan with Trump following his trip to India last week.

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