Trump administration officials on Saturday defended the president’s legal authority to name his own acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, setting up a potential showdown over who will be in charge of the agency on Monday morning.
The officials, speaking to reporters in a briefing call, cited guidance from the Office of Legal Counsel, part of the Justice Department, as legal grounds for Mr. Trump’s move to name his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, to temporarily lead the consumer agency until a permanent successor is confirmed by Congress.
The officials cited the federal Vacancies Reform Act as giving Mr. Trump the authority to override the successor named by Richard Cordray, the agency’s head, who abruptly resigned on Friday. Mr. Cordray followed up his resignation announcement with a letter naming the agency’s chief of staff as acting chief.
Mr. Trump’s decision shortly afterward to name his own temporary director was a “typical routine move,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A formal opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel was expected to be released later Saturday, the officials said. In two past opinions, issued in 2003 and 2007, the office had argued that the president has the authority to use the Vacancies Act to override an agency’s designated succession path.
“We have gone out of our way to avoid any unnecessary legal battle with Mr. Cordray,” the administration official said. “His actions clearly indicate he is trying to provoke one.”
Mr. Cordray had been expected to resign at the end of the month. Instead, in the middle of a holiday weekend, he said he was leaving and named Leandra English, the agency’s chief of staff, as deputy director. Under the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, which established the consumer bureau, the deputy director serves as the agency’s acting head in the absence of permanent leadership.
Within hours, Mr. Trump said Mr. Mulvaney would be the interim director. Mr. Mulvaney is a fiscal hawk who previously called the agency a “sad, sick joke” and once, as a member of the House, sponsored legislation to end its existence.
Democrats, who fought for the bureau’s creation and championed its work as a valuable defense against predatory companies and abusive financial practices, are likely to push for a legal challenge to Mr. Trump’s move.
Some legal experts say there is merit to questioning whether the Vacancy Reform Act supersedes an individual agency’s designated line of succession.
“It seems to me there’s an open question about how the V.R.A. would interact with Dodd-Frank, one that, frankly, may well have a different answer,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas.
The appointment of Ms. English to the deputy director position was seen as an attempt to delay Mr. Trump from appointing his own interim director. Confirming a permanent director could take months. Mr. Cordray’s own confirmation was delayed for two years by Republicans and the banking industry, two parties that objected to the agency’s creation and sought to limit the attempt at federal oversight.
Mr. Mulvaney will shoulder his new acting leadership on top of his role as director of the Office of Management and Budget. It is unclear how he will manage both roles, and the officials directed all questions about the mechanics of the situation to the director.