The dispute has elevated Ms. English to a national spotlight. Before her appointment, she was a low-profile career civil servant who joined the agency in its infancy and rose steadily through its ranks, serving most recently as its chief of staff. She holds degrees from New York University and the London School of Economics, and previously held senior positions at the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created six years ago to oversee a wide variety of financial products, including mortgages, credit cards, bank accounts and student loans.
Under the leadership of Richard Cordray, the departing director, the bureau aggressively used its powers to develop new rules and punish companies that broke existing ones. It targeted abusive debt collectors and bolstered protections for mortgage borrowers. Under Mr. Cordray, it won nearly $12 billion in refunds and canceled debts for 29 million consumers.
But that put it in the cross hairs of industry critics and many Republicans, who cried overreach.
“Wall Street hates it like the devil hates holy water,” Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, told CNN on Sunday.
Republicans have argued that the agency under Mr. Cordray has held back growth and innovation. They have criticized how he ran the agency in dozens of appearances on Capitol Hill.
To protect the agency from political interference, Congress gave it unusual independence and autonomy. The bureau’s leader, who serves a five-year term, is one of the few federal officials the president cannot fire at will.
The current standoff was triggered by the resignation of Mr. Cordray, who abruptly stepped down on Friday. His departure came eight months before his term was scheduled to end.
Ms. English, an agency veteran, was appointed to the deputy director position hours later. In a letter, Mr. Cordray said the appointment would make her the agency’s acting director under the terms of the law that created the agency.
But Mr. Trump is citing a different federal law in his effort to appoint Mr. Mulvaney. The dueling appointments left it unclear who would be running the agency on Monday.
Ms. English is looking to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to resolve the dispute. The lawsuit she filed seeks a temporary injunction to halt Mr. Mulvaney’s appointment.
“The President’s attempt to appoint a still-serving White House staffer to displace the acting head of an independent agency is contrary to the overall statutory design and independence of the bureau,” Ms. English wrote in her lawsuit.
The White House and the consumer bureau did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms. English asked the court for an emergency restraining order to prevent Mr. Trump from naming an interim leader for the agency. She also asked it to declare that she, not Mr. Mulvaney, is the agency’s acting director.
Mr. Mulvaney would be a “wrecking ball” at the agency, said Lauren Saunders, the associate director of the National Consumer Law Center, an advocacy group.
As the fight between the White House and the consumer agency unfolded over the holiday weekend, many expected that it would up end in court.
The legal grounds that the Trump administration cited for Mr. Mulvaney’s appointment — a law called the Federal Vacancies Reform Act — “is at the very least contestable,” said Marty Lederman, a law professor at Georgetown formerly with the Justice Department.
Ms. English’s claim is based on the wording of the Dodd-Frank Act, the 2010 law that created the bureau. It specified that in the “absence or unavailability,” the bureau’s deputy director is to step in as its acting head.
The court will need to decide which law takes precedence.
The consumer bureau’s own lawyer, though, is backing the White House view.
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel published an eight-page opinion on Saturday explaining its legal grounds for supporting Mr. Mulvaney’s appointment though the Vacancies Reform Act. Mary E. McLeod, the consumer bureau’s general counsel, sent a memo to the agency’s senior staff later that day saying that she found the office’s reasoning “on point and persuasive.”
“I advise all bureau personnel to act consistently with the understanding that Director Mulvaney is the acting director of the C.F.P.B.,” Ms. McLeod wrote.
The conflicting arguments put the consumer bureau’s employees in an awkward position. White House officials said on Saturday that Mr. Mulvaney intends to show up at the agency’s office on Monday to begin his work.
“Everything about this situation is unusual,” said Deepak Gupta, Ms. English’s lawyer. Mr. Gupta is a former senior counsel for the consumer bureau, who left in 2012 to start his own law firm.
“We want to give the court time to consider the merits of both sides’ legal arguments,” he said. “And while that happens, we think the appropriate thing is to leave Ms. English in place as the acting director.”
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