The US consumer financial watchdog was plunged into turmoil on Monday as rival directors vied to take charge amid a lawsuit against the White House.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) director resigned last week and appointed his former chief of staff, Leandra English, to replace him.
She has sued after President Donald Trump instead named his budget chief Mick Mulvaney to lead the CFPB.
The CFPB, unpopular on Wall Street, was set up after the 2007 financial crash.
Who’s in charge?
Leandra English sent the agency’s staff a brief email on Monday saying: “It is an honor to work with all of you.”
Ms English signed it, “Acting Director”.
But Mr Mulvaney – who has previously called the CFPB a “sick, sad joke” that should be scrapped – arrived at the bureau on Monday morning carrying a bag of donuts for employees.
He wrote in a memo to staff: “Please disregard any instructions you receive from Ms English in her presumed capacity as Acting Director.”
Mr Mulvaney also signed off as “acting director”, urging staff to pop by his office on the fourth floor and “grab a donut”.
What is the CFPB?
The 1,600-employee watchdog was set up in 2010 to protect Americans from predatory lenders.
Republicans say it has placed an excessive regulatory burden on Wall Street.
Democrats say the CFPB is reining in the very excesses that helped spur the global financial crash a decade ago.
Mr Trump took to Twitter on Saturday to criticise the agency, calling it a “total disaster”.
He argued that because of the CFPB “financial institutions have been devastated and unable to properly serve the public”.
What about this lawsuit?
On Sunday, Ms English asked a judge at a federal court in Washington DC to issue a temporary restraining order against Mr Trump’s appointment of Mr Mulvaney.
In her lawsuit, she called herself the “rightful acting director” of the CFPB.
The legal action said: “The President’s purported or intended appointment of defendant Mulvaney as Acting Director of the CFPB is unlawful.”
The White House says the president has the authority to appoint Mr Mulvaney under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act.
But a lawyer for Ms English says the law states that as deputy director she is entitled to take power until the Senate can vote to confirm another director.
What’s the reaction?
Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a member of the chamber’s banking committee, called Ms English’s lawsuit “just the latest lawless action” by the CFPB, which he called “rogue” and “unconstitutional”.
“The President should fire her immediately and anyone who disobeys Director Mulvaney’s orders should also be fired summarily,” Mr Cotton wrote in a statement.
But Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin told CNN the White House decision was aimed at eradicating the CFPB.
“Wall Street hates it like the devil hates holy water,” he said.