Mnuchin emerges as key asset in Trump's war against coronavirus

 

Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinHillicon Valley: Twitter flags Trump tweet for 'glorifying violence' | Cruz calls for criminal investigation into Twitter over alleged sanctions violations | Senators urge FTC to investigate TikTok child privacy issues On The Money: Senate Dems pump brakes on new stimulus checks | Trump officials sued over tax refunds | Fed to soon open small-business lending program Schumer slams Trump's Rose Garden briefing on China as 'pathetic' MORE has taken on an outsized role in the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus, serving as a key conduit between President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE and Congress. 

Mnuchin has helped shepherd through two massive legislative packages aimed at helping address the public health crisis and the ensuing economic fallout, engaging constantly with Democratic leaders despite the considerable partisan divide that has plagued Washington.

“We had had Secretary Mnuchin and Mr. Mulvaney and others, and I think both Republicans and Democrats made it very clear the person they wanted to talk to with was Secretary Mnuchin," said Senate Appropriations Vice Chairman Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyHouse punts on FISA, votes to begin negotiations with Senate House cancels planned Thursday vote on FISA Frustration builds in key committee ahead of Graham subpoena vote  MORE (D-Vt.), referencing Trump’s outgoing acting chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick Mulvaney12 things to know today about coronavirus Mulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus The Memo: Trump agenda rolls on amid pandemic MORE.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Everybody gave him high marks,” Leahy added. 

The Treasury secretary, a formal member of the White House coronavirus task force, has been omnipresent, appearing regularly at socially-distanced White House briefings and in the halls of Congress as the administration tackles what has become Trump’s largest crisis and the biggest test of his leadership. 

Mnuchin joked on Wednesday that he had been living in the Lyndon B. Johnson room of the Senate — a space just off the floor that he used as a makeshift office — as administration officials and Senate leaders engaged in high-stakes talks to come to terms on the latest agreement. 

“I got to live in the LBJ room for the last five days, and we couldn't be more pleased with the unprecedented response from the Senate to protect American workers and American business in this situation,” Mnuchin told reporters at the White House. 

During the final days of the recent negotiations, he frequently arrived around 9 a.m. and stayed until midnight or later. 

The House on Friday passed the massive $2.2 trillion package meant to help American workers and businesses struggling amid the coronavirus outbreak domestically, and Trump quickly signed it thereafter. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“We got hit by the invisible enemy and we got hit hard,” Trump said during an Oval Office signing ceremony. “I think we are going to have a tremendous rebound.”

That Mnuchin emerged as the administration’s central congressional dealmaker for the coronavirus response is no surprise. It’s a path he’s successfully tread before.

Last summer, as the clock was ticking for Congress to strike a deal on the debt ceiling, it was Mnuchin who represented the administration in a deal that ultimately raised spending caps by billions of dollars. He came to the Capitol again in December, when spending talks had hit an impasse over Trump’s border wall, to help strike a deal that Democrats, Republicans and the president would all be comfortable with. Mnuchin was also an integral figure in the successful effort to pass tax reform when Republicans held both chambers of Congress. 

“The most important thing about the secretary is that he has the complete trust and respect of the president,” said one former administration official close to Mnuchin. “He’s the president’s go-to guy.” 

Mnuchin developed a working bond with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Pelosi Sunday shows preview: Leaders weigh in as country erupts in protest over George Floyd death 5 things to know about US-China tensions over Hong Kong Pelosi calls Trump's decision to withdraw US from WHO 'an act of extraordinary senselessness' MORE (D-Calif.) during negotiations on a House bill helping working families, despite her relationship with the president being at a nadir following his impeachment. 

In fact, throughout the coronavirus crisis, Trump and Pelosi have not spoken on the phone once. In a series of marathon negotiations over the second phase of the response, meanwhile, Mnuchin spoke with the Speaker 20 times in just one day. 

“He respects the fact that she’s the Speaker of the House and she’s an integral part of the governing process,” said the former official. 

Pelosi even went so far as to thank Mnuchin from the House floor on Friday morning for “facilitating” the use of an existing Small Business Administration loans program administered by banks as a conduit for getting cash to businesses quickly. 

On the economic relief package, Mnuchin, Trump economic adviser Larry KudlowLawrence (Larry) Alan KudlowMORE and White House legislative director Eric Ueland negotiated with Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFor city parks: Pass the Great American Outdoors Act now US ill-prepared for coronavirus-fueled mental health crisis Schumer to GOP: Cancel 'conspiracy hearings' on origins of Russia probe MORE (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerFederal judges should be allowed to be Federalist Society members Warren condemns 'horrific' Trump tweet on Minneapolis protests, other senators chime in VA hospitals mostly drop hydroxychloroquine as coronavirus treatment MORE (D-N.Y.) to ink a deal in the Senate. A senior Treasury official said Mnuchin was in “constant communication” with McConnell and Schumer as well as Pelosi throughout the negotiations, often speaking with them dozens of times daily. 

Schumer said Mnuchin liked to refer to the two of them as “Chuck and Steve.” When a Schumer staffer accompanied Mnuchin with documents following a meeting, Mnuchin joked he was taking the staffer hostage.  

“He’s coming to the dark side," he quipped to reporters.

Mnuchin is among the more influential members of the president’s Cabinet in part because of his long-held relationship with Trump.

ADVERTISEMENT

Mnuchin, who has known Trump for 15 years, took on a role as his 2016 campaign finance chairman and later Treasury secretary already having won the president’s trust. 

Mnuchin is one of the few original Cabinet members remaining in the Trump administration and has been involved in a number of big-ticket agenda items, including trade negotiations with China and now the response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Those who have worked with Mnuchin describe him as taking a businesslike approach to negotiations with Congress and say he understands the importance of getting along with both sides of the political aisle when it comes to delivering on priorities for the administration.  

“He was largely viewed by members as a straight shooter,” said one former administration official who worked closely with Mnuchin. “He never over promised what he believed the Treasury or administration could deliver." 

Such negotiations are rarely without drama, as was the case when Senate Democrats twice blocked the economic relief bill from going to the floor for a vote and, after a deal was announced, a group of Republicans objected to a provision related to unemployment insurance that they argued would incentivize Americans to not return to work. 

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Mnuchin said he and Trump spoke to the senators about the issue. He explained the text was the only way to ensure states could get the benefits to Americans quickly and fairly and that he disagreed that it would be an incentive not to work. 

ADVERTISEMENT

While Mnuchin would not say whether the group was in agreement after their conversation, the bill eventually passed unanimously after the chamber defeated an amendment from Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseHillicon Valley: Lawmakers demand answers on Chinese COVID hacks | Biden re-ups criticism of Amazon | House Dem bill seeks to limit microtargeting Lawmakers ask for briefings on Chinese targeting of coronavirus research On The Money: GOP senators heed Fed chair's call for more relief | Rollout of new anti-redlining laws spark confusion in banking industry | Nearly half of American households have lost employment income during pandemic MORE (R-Neb.) that would have limited the benefits. 

Conservatives such as Club for Growth President David McIntosh, however, cite the incident as an example of how Mnuchin, the most "Democrat-friendly" member of the Trump team, sometimes gives too much ground on key issues.

“Treasury and Mnuchin were dealing with an area they don’t have expertise in, and they made a mistake,” McIntosh said. 

Conservatives were similarly upset about the previous coronavirus bill’s inclusion of mandated paid leave, which they argue left businesses in a cash crunch.

“Washington bureaucrats and Secretary Mnuchin didn’t understand the reality of small businesses, that it’s all based on cash,” McIntosh said. 

With outgoing Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsTrump to return to Florida for rescheduled SpaceX launch Pence names new press secretary House leaders take vote-counting operations online MORE (R-N.C.) set to replace Mulvaney as Trump's new chief of staff, McIntosh said there was hope for more pressure in future negotiations “to make sure they didn’t just cave to the Democrats’ demands.”

ADVERTISEMENT

But Mnuchin, among a handful of officials advising Trump on the economic implications of major shutdowns, will face more tests ahead.

Democrats in Congress are already eyeing a fourth relief measure. And Trump is considering when to relax social distancing guidelines in some areas in a bit to revive the U.S. economy, a decision that Mnuchin is likely to advise the president on. Trump announced Sunday evening that the guideline would remain in place until April 30 and his administration is expected to release a more detailed strategy this week. 

“The secretary is a very balanced person. He arrives at decisions from a balanced perspective and one that is largely driven by data and evidence,” said the former official close to Mnuchin. “I think he’s likely sympathetic to the idea that at some point you have to turn the economy back on.” 

Jordain Carney contributed.