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Who's In Charge Of The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?


Two people showed up at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau today claiming to be the acting director. One came with donuts for the staff. That would be Mick Mulvaney, who was chosen to lead the bureau by President Trump. The other sent a nice welcome back from the holiday email. That was Leandra English, who insists she should now lead the bureau. To talk more about this is NPR's Scott Horsley from the White House. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, good to be with you.

MCEVERS: How did it all start?

HORSLEY: Well, last week the director of the agency, an Obama holdover, resigned. And on the way out the door he tapped his chief of staff, Leandra English, to serve as acting director in his absence. But President Trump named his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, to be acting director. And that contest came to a head this morning, as you say, with dueling emails and that big bag of donuts. It was Mulvaney who showed up with the sugary introduction to the staff. But English had already staked her claim with an all-staff email saying she's the acting director. Mulvaney then responded with his own longer email saying, in effect, I'm in charge and pay no attention to the instructions you might get from English.

MCEVERS: Well, then how is all of this going to be resolved?

HORSLEY: English asked a federal judge to declare that she is the rightful boss at the agency. And Judge Timothy Kelly heard arguments on the question this afternoon. He did not rule right away, but he's going to have to weigh competing statutes. The law that set up the agency says it's up to the director to name a deputy who runs things when he's not available. The White House points to a competing law which appears to give that authority to the president.

So far we've had the general counsel at the bureau weigh in. He sided with the White House on the question, as did the Justice Department. But others, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, who dreamed up this agency, they're siding with Ms. English. So Judge Kelly's going to have to sort all that out. And he, by the way, is a Trump appointee.

MCEVERS: Is this just about a personnel dispute, or are there policy differences at stake here?

HORSLEY: No, there are big policy differences here. Mulvaney has long been a fierce critic of the watchdog agency which was set up in the wake of the financial crisis to safeguard consumers from predatory lenders and other financial pitfalls. Like a lot of Republicans, Mulvaney says the agency has gone too far, that it is choking off credit and, in his words, trampling on capitalism. He insists he has not been sent in to muzzle the watchdog, as many consumer advocates claim. But he did order a 30-day hiring freeze, as well as a 30-day freeze on any new regulations.


MICK MULVANEY: Anybody who thinks that a Trump administration CFPB would be the same as an Obama administration - Trump - CFPB is simply being naive. Elections have consequences at every agency, and that includes the CFPB.

HORSLEY: When this agency was set up, Kelly, it was deliberately structured to be very independent. For example, Congress does not get to vote on its budget. But critics including Mulvaney say it's not just independent. It's unaccountable. And the agency's also faced a lot of pushback from the financial companies it regulates, including the payday loan industry - which, by the way, contributed thousands of dollars to Mulvaney's campaign coffers when he was a member of Congress.

MCEVERS: So how does Mulvaney's appointment fit into the president's larger agenda?

HORSLEY: This agency is one of many legacies of the Obama administration that Trump is working to unwind, especially those that have to do with regulation. He tweeted over the weekend that the bureau has been a, quote, "total disaster." He says that financial institutions have been devastated by its oversight. We should point out, though, big banks are enjoying big profits. The president - no one questions his authority to appoint a permanent director. And once that person is confirmed by the Senate, he or she will likely move the agency in a very different direction than it's been going in the past.

MCEVERS: NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House, thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.