Say what you will about Steve Mnuchin (and lord knows there’s a lot you can say), but he is easily the most credible top official in the Trump administration.
Of course that’s not saying a whole lot, considering that when it comes to Trump officials, the “credible” continuum looks something like this:
As far as anyone knows, Steve is none of those things in any real sense, which means that although he would most assuredly be “left of red” were this a typical administration where the points on that visual had normal labels (e.g., “not credible”—-> “pseudo-credible” —-> “very credible”), he’s off the charts “right of green” on the Trump scale.
The problem with that for Steve is that it leaves him perpetually at odds with the President, because the only way to be sure that your job is safe in this White House is if your “dot” falls somewhere on the above scale. If you haven’t had questionable contact with Russians on multiple occasions, haven’t been accused (rightly or wrongly) of any crimes and if you have any claim whatsoever on being some semblance of intelligent under certain circumstances, well then the Trump administration might not be for you – as John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, Jim Mattis, HR McMaster and countless others have discovered over the past two years.
Again, none of that is to suggest that Mnuchin is some kind of exemplary public servant with a squeaky clean reputation and an unassailable track record of brilliance, it’s just to say that when the bar for credibility is set below sea level, somebody like Steve hurdles it with relative ease.
That’s why it was somewhat painful to watch Mnuchin’s exchange with Maxine Waters on Tuesday.
Frankly, that wasn’t entirely fair to Steve – Waters put him in an impossible position and wouldn’t let him out of it. Is it funny? Well, yes. In fact, it’s hilarious. But it wasn’t fair.
Steve is the living embodiment of “guilty by association.” But unlike John Kelly, who could reasonably cite a concern for national security as a reason for sticking around as long as he did, Mnuchin really doesn’t have an excuse for not resigning, as his Yale classmates implored him to do following the Charlottesville debacle.
Mnuchin has, at times, protested the president’s worst protectionist impulses and one supposes that, in private, Steve argues he can’t quit, because if he does, Navarro and Lighthizer would have free rein over trade policy with God only knows what consequences. On top of that, there’s no telling who would end up being Treasury Secretary. If Stephen Moore and Herman Cain can be on the Fed, then there’s every reason to believe Trump would see no problem with Treasury Secretary Hannity just like the president was rumored to have briefly entertained the idea of Attorney General Jeanine Pirro.
That’s a red herring, though. Steve could quit and really, it’s a miracle he’s lasted as long as he has without finding himself dragged into a contentious legal fight.
His luck ran out last week when Richard Neal demanded Trump’s tax returns and now, Mnuchin finds himself staring down a situation where he is compelled from on “high” to defy Congress, setting up a legal fight that could well end up in the Supreme Court.
On Wednesday evening, Mnuchin responded to Neal. Treasury will not meet the deadline for producing Trump’s returns. In a letter, Steve said he’s consulting with William Barr’s Justice Department to determine whether there are legal and constitutional issues.
“[I] will consult with counsel and determine the appropriate response to the commissioner in the coming days”, Neal responded.
This is not Mnuchin’s only worry. On Tuesday, he told Congress that he’s not worried about being fired if he determines that complying with Neal’s request for Trump’s returns is in fact the right thing to do, and maybe he was telling the truth. But one thing that probably has crossed his mind (a lot) over the past six or so months is the idea that Trump might fire him for the “mistake” of recommending Jerome Powell, who the White House blames for undercutting the MAGA economic miracle and tanking Trump’s beloved stock market during Christmas.
In the course of revealing Trump’s March 8 phone call to Powell, the Wall Street Journal cited three unnamed sources who were present for a trio of meetings during which Trump cast aspersions at Mnuchin. “Mnuchin gave me this guy”, the president reportedly said, echoing criticism he lobbed the Treasury Secretary’s way late last year as stocks careened lower.
You might recall that on Christmas Day, following Mnuchin’s (extremely) ill-advised effort to rescue US equities by placing panicked calls to the CEOs of America’s largest banks (only to see the effort backfire in spectacular fashion), rumors circulated that Trump was at the end of his rope.
That wasn’t the first time Mnuchin’s job looked tenuous. In November, the Journal reported that the White House was dissatisfied with Mnuchin for a number of reasons, not the least of which was that the President blamed Steve for Powell’s hawkish sins.
On Wednesday, Mnuchin spoke to CNBC about a number of things, including Powell, Stephen Moore and Herman Cain.
While the sane among you will invariably watch the clip below and come away thinking that Steve did a fairly decent job of saying the “right” things (especially considering the circumstances), his insistence that he does not believe Powell is the “wrong guy” and his refusal to throw his weight behind calls for rate cuts will likely irk Trump. Watch this:
Steve is probably lying there towards the end. He’s likely at least somewhat concerned about Moore and Cain being on the Fed board and there is no way he thinks they are qualified to be nominees. But he can’t say that. Again, it’s a miracle he remains committed to not joining in on the effort to demonize Powell and demand rate cuts.
Mnuchin went on to say that he “knows Moore well”, doesn’t know Cain, but thinks he “should be confirmed” (Narrator: No he doesn’t).
Who knows, maybe Mnuchin’s lukewarm endorsements of Moore of Cain will placate the president despite Steve’s unwillingness to opine on the correct course for monetary policy.
One person who isn’t similarly torn when it comes to explicitly endorsing rate cuts is Mike Pence. On Wednesday evening, CNBC reported that according to an interview with the Vice President which will air on Thursday morning, Pence is now adding his voice to those supporting rate cuts for an economy that everyone in the administration insists is “great” (again).
Here’s the clip of Mike telling Joe Kernen (who you’ll note treated the Vice a lot better than he treated Ray Dalio earlier this week despite the fact that between the two of them, Ray certainly deserves more respect) how rate cuts and crisis-era monetary policy is consistent with the idea that the economy is doing fine:
Is Mike’s assessment something that should be taken seriously? Well obviously not, but the fact that he would endorse Trump’s ongoing assault on the central bank (and observe how Kernen goes right along with it when Pence suggests that what this president is doing is no different from what other presidents have done) is just further evidence to support the contention that the entire administration is nothing more than a collection of vacuous sycophants.
If you read all of the above and came away thinking Mnuchin is in an extremely precarious position by virtue of having to i) make the call on Trump’s tax returns and ii) play the fall guy in the event stocks take another turn for the worse (because the president has apparently come to realize that firing Powell risks triggering a global panic), you’re not alone. It’s also entirely possible that the White House will view Mnuchin as expendable once the trade deal is sealed.
Now let’s see if Steve is willing to go down in the history books as the man who defied Congress thereby kicking off a high-profile legal battle for a sitting US president’s tax returns.