Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin loves being at the center of the White House action, a place he found himself again on Thursday, in the briefing room talking about the latest round of corporate pay hikes and bonuses.
The latest West Wing appearance was right in Mnuchin’s sweet spot, on the implementation and impact of the big GOP tax cut bill. But the Treasury secretary keeps trying to insert himself into other major policy debates, from the Iran deal and North Korea to trade, infrastructure, and the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity efforts.
This always-on-the-scene behavior is causing tension with White House chief of staff John Kelly, who has tried to impose structure and keep people in their lanes, as well as with other senior administration officials and fellow Cabinet members, according to a dozen current and former senior administration officials and close advisers to the White House.
Mnuchin arrived in administration a year ago fresh from President Donald Trump’s campaign plane, and his boundless enthusiasm for his job has led him to constantly expand his domain. Many observers see the Treasury chief using his proximity to the White House and his close relationship with the president to grab hold of any issue he can and bring it into his portfolio.
Those senior administration officials say that Kelly has been particularly annoyed by Mnuchin’s desire to attend as many meetings as possible and participate in photo-ops, on the reasoning that all policy matters are tangentially related to Treasury.
“The sanctions led Mnuchin to get more involved in the Iran deal and North Korea, much to the frustration of some of the national security experts” including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and defense secretary James Mattis, said a close adviser to the White House. “McMaster and Mattis were like, ‘What is this guy doing here? You are not a policymaker here. You should be managing your department and the implementation of the tax bill.’”
Mnuchin allies argue the Treasury Department is ultimately responsible for the state of the economy and for enforcing economic sanctions, a mandate that gives the secretary broad latitude. And supporters also say that he still maintains his close relationship with the person who matters the most: Trump.
But the fact so many officials keep clashing with Mnuchin—a campaign fundraiser who was one of Trump’s earliest allies—is a sign that, as the White House staff professionalizes and matures, having a close relationship with the president doesn’t confer the same immunity that it once did.
“People were a little bit afraid of his relationship with the president early on, and there was a reticence about attacking or crossing him. That is gone now,” said a Republican with close ties to the White House. “Maybe he still retains Trump’s confidence, but there is a willingness now to shoot at him. That is a sign.”
The White House press office and a Treasury spokesman denied that Mnuchin is straying from his robust Treasury portfolio, or has tension with any other Cabinet members or senior staff including Kelly.
“Anybody who knows anything about the president and the White House knows how central Secretary Mnuchin is to the administration,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “Secretary Mnuchin is one of the most valued, trusted and loyal members of the president’s Cabinet and just as he was on the campaign, he is universally supported and respected in the White House. He continues to play an integral and leading role in many aspects of the president’s agenda ranging from comprehensive tax reform to our foreign policy. These anonymous sources are ridiculous.”
A White House official added: “General McMaster wishes Secretary Mnuchin was in more meetings. He sees him as a force for good.”
From the beginning, Mnuchin has been among the first to defend Trump publicly at difficult moments, including in the wake of the president’s comments equating Black Lives Matter demonstrators in Charlottesville with white supremacist marchers and during Trump’s subsequent attacks on NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
Mnuchin spent New Year’s Eve with Trump at Mar-a-Lago and returned to Washington on Air Force One—but wasn’t at a January weekend strategy session at Camp David with congressional leaders to map out the legislative agenda for 2018.
The White House also announced on Thursday that Mnuchin will lead the administration’s delegation to Davos.
Mnuchin has a long to-do list at Treasury to keep him busy, post-tax reform: from putting the tax overhaul into practice to working on housing finance and international economic sanctions, among a myriad of issues.
But administration officials described a challenging and often frosty dynamic between Mnuchin and his Treasury lieutenants and West Wing staff working on economic issues.
Several officials also said while Mnuchin can be charming and solicitous of others when in the Oval Office with Trump, he can be cold and condescending to other staff and resistant to alternate viewpoints.
An official close to Mnuchin insisted that he has a friendly working relationship with people throughout the administration.
Other White Houses have seen policy tension and turf battles between the National Economic Council, headquartered in the West Wing, and Treasury Department staff working next door. But the senior White House officials who spoke to POLITICO described a particularly dysfunctional relationship between the Trump’s NEC, led by Gary Cohn, and Mnuchin’s Treasury department.
That difficult dynamic could pose problems in the next several months as the White House tries to fill senior slots at the NEC, including potentially Cohn’s should the former Goldman Sachs president depart the administration, as many expect. An official said that the NEC and Treasury maintain a strong relationship, best evidenced by the way the two groups worked together to pass tax reform.
Mnuchin prefers to lean on a very small, insular group of aides – Phillips, Eli Miller, Justin Muzinich, Tony Sayegh, Drew Maloney, and Brent McIntosh – which has generated frustration among career staff. Many staffers have little insight into Mnuchin’s thinking or priorities for the agency, and critics argue this could pose problems as Treasury heads in 2018 with its own hefty to-do list.
Some career staffers at Treasury felt disappointed that, as the tax bill progressed, much of that work moved over to the Hill.
“There was not that much for some of staff to do. At the end, they were calculating hypothetical examples of the way families would benefit from the tax bill,” said Mark Mazur, a former Treasury official under President Obama and director of the non-partisan Tax Policy Center.
For months, Mnuchin also promised that Treasury would deliver an analysis of the deficit and the tax bill– only later to offer up a one-page document, short on specifics. Critics found the document laughable because Treasury historically employs dozens of economists in its Office of Tax Analysis, careerists capable of producing much more rigorous and sophisticated work.
One senior administration official called the release of the one-pager on the deficit impact of the tax cut “embarrassing to all of us.”
The White House also continues to distrust Mnuchin’s handling of his own personnel and reluctance to hire additional aides, particularly right-leaning ones, according to two senior administration aides.
He’s opted to leave vacant a number of key positions—including under secretary for domestic finance, one of the highest-ranked positions in the agency and deputy Treasury secretary—while surrounding himself with former Wall Street executives, many of them Democrats.
At one point earlier this year, the White House nudged Mnuchin to fire Craig Phillips, a Treasury counselor dealing with housing finance and financial deregulation who acts as the de facto under secretary—and who is a former donor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign and an ex-Wall Street executive, widely seen by Republicans as insufficiently conservative. Mnuchin declined.
During the tax negotiations, Mnuchin also managed to alienate his Republican negotiating partners in Congress, suggesting at one meeting that they should take a politically difficult vote as a personal favor to him—not to the president.
He also attracted attention for posing with his wife, clad in black opera gloves, at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in mid-November holding newly-printed sheets of cash, a photo that became the talk of Washington as the administration tried to push through a tax reform widely seen as benefiting the wealthy.
“There is definitely a feeling among a lot of the White House staff that he says inopportune things and creates significant distractions,” said the Republican close to the administration. “It’s not related to his knowledge of subject matter or his ideological profile. He simply makes unforced errors.”