WASHINGTON — On Monday, Mick Mulvaney, the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, brought in doughnuts. Around the same time, Leandra English, the agency’s other acting director, sent an all-staff email thanking employees for their service.
And so it goes in a capital city defined by its dysfunction, at an agency where two public servants are messily and publicly vying to lead a controversial agency under constant political assault by Republicans. Ties between the Trump White House and the federal government’s top consumer financial watchdog agency were so frayed by the end of Thanksgiving weekend that hundreds of confused employees came to work not knowing who their director would be.
“I knew on Friday who my boss was,” an employee for the agency, who only gave his first name, Ella, because he was concerned about his job security, said as he approached the bureau. “But thanks to this idiot, I don’t know.”
(He did not clarify which idiot.)
The bureaucratic roller coaster began with the abrupt departure on Friday of Richard Cordray, who helped the agency aggressively expand its powers to punish rule-breaking companies. He named Ms. English as his acting deputy director and presumed acting director. The White House responded forcefully by saying Mr. Mulvaney would be the one in control until the president decided on a permanent successor, whose confirmation could take months. And on Sunday evening, Ms. English filed a lawsuit against President Trump in an attempt to block him from appointing Mr. Mulvaney, who is named in the lawsuit as “claiming to be acting director” of the agency.
As confusion reigned, Ms. English headed to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers about her plans. Among those lawmakers: Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat of Massachusetts who proposed the bureau and helped set it up, according to a spokeswoman for Ms. Warren.
Mr. Mulvaney, for his part, dodged questions from consumer finance advocates as he carried in breakfast for at least a few employees on the 1,600-person payroll. There was no public trace of Ms. English, whose tenure as a low-profile public servant abruptly ended as she began to fight on behalf of the agency she helped found in 2011. Mr. Mulvaney has been openly critical of the agency, once calling it a “joke” and a “wonderful example of how a bureaucracy will function if it has no accountability to anybody.”
The two dueling directors embody widely differing visions regarding the future of the agency, which was established under the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act and adopted an aggressive agenda under the Obama administration, targeting financial companies for practices that it considers unfair or abusive. Those actions have resulted in nearly 30 million consumers collecting almost $12 billion in refunds and canceled debts.
Republicans have long said the agency has overreached. Mr. Trump publicly offered his thoughts on the agency’s performance over the weekend: “The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, has been a total disaster as run by the previous Administrations pick,” he wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “Financial Institutions have been devastated and unable to properly serve the public. We will bring it back to life!”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, commented on the disarray: “It is unfortunate that Mr. Cordray decided to put his political ambition above the interests of consumers with this stunt,” she said in a statement. “Director Mulvaney will bring a more serious and professional approach to running the C.F.P.B.”
On Monday, the bureaucratic Ping-Pong continued as the morning progressed. Mr. Mulvaney sent a memo to employees, asking them to “please disregard any instructions you receive from Ms. English in her presumed capacity as Acting Director.”
“If you receive additional communications from her today in any form, related in any way to the function of her actual or presumed official duties (i.e. not personal), please inform the General Counsel.”
He also instructed staff to say hello and grab a doughnut.
In her own email, sent to the entire staff about a half-hour after Mr. Mulvaney arrived for work, Ms. English expressed her gratitude: “It is an honor to work with all of you,” she wrote.
They both signed off as Acting Director.