Donald Trump has selected financier Steven Mnuchin as his nominee for treasury secretary, Mnuchin confirmed on Wednesday. The choice isn’t a surprise — Mnuchin had been rumored to be the leading candidate — but it is a disappointment for us policy nerds. Not because of Mnuchin’s policy positions, but because we have next to no idea what those positions are.
The position of treasury secretary has the well-deserved reputation as one of the most powerful Cabinet posts. The department collects federal taxes, sells bonds, regulates national banks and prints money — the treasury secretary’s name is on every piece of paper currency. But even so, a president’s choice for the role rarely matters to many people outside a relatively narrow circle of Washington insiders and economic policy wonks. How many treasury secretaries — other than Alexander Hamilton — can you name? For most Americans, it’s probably a short list, even though some of the names are in their pockets.
But the choice matters more this time because Trump’s own economic policies are so uncertain. During the campaign, Trump promised to renegotiate trade deals but gave few details as to how. He offered multiple, contradictory tax plans, and his budget math didn’t add up. At times he sounded like a traditional Republican candidate — lower taxes, limited spending — and at others like a populist firebrand, blasting Wall Street and at one point calling for a new version of the old Glass-Steagall Act, which would break up big banks. As a result, experts are looking to Trump’s Cabinet picks for clues as to which policies he will actually pursue.
Mnuchin, who served as the Trump campaign’s finance chairman, doesn’t give us much to go on. Like many treasury secretaries, he has spent his career in the private sector, and he has made few public comments on policy issues. His résumé — second-generation Yale, second-generation Goldman Sachs, his own hedge fund — is that of a conventional Republican. (Or a conventional Democrat, for that matter — Mnuchin has donated to candidates in both parties.) But a few of his career moves suggest a maverick streak: He abandoned New York for the West Coast, where he has financed Hollywood movies. And his early support for Trump was itself unusual — relatively few Wall Streeters embraced Trump.
When Mnuchin formally joined Trump’s campaign last spring, the New Republic described him as “the anti-populist from Hell” because of his background in banking, and particularly his time as chairman of OneWest Bank, which played a prominent role in the foreclosure crisis. Since the election — and especially since word of Mnuchin’s appointment leaked Tuesday evening — media accounts have tended to stick to that narrative, noting the apparent irony in Trump turning to an establishment figure like Mnuchin after winning the presidency as a populist. But while Mnuchin himself may be as establishment as they come, we don’t know whether his positions are. In an appearance on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Wednesday morning, he voiced support for Trump’s tax plans and discussed monetary policy — usually the territory of the Federal Reserve. But before Wednesday, about the closest he had come to a policy statement came shortly after Election Day, when he told reporters that Trump was planning to enact “the biggest tax changes since Reagan.” That’s a promise nearly as bold as Trump’s own — and every bit as vague.