One spring day, not long after President Trump signed the largest economic stimulus package in American history in March, a group of his top aides and cabinet officers gathered in the Oval Office.
The $2.2 trillion government rescue — which delivered cash to individuals, small businesses and giant companies — was a crucial victory for Mr. Trump, who was facing withering attacks for his failures to respond to the fast-spreading coronavirus.
It also was a much-needed win for the program’s chief architect, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. He didn’t have a lot of fans. The president ran hot and cold on him. Conservatives distrusted him as a Republican in Name Only. Liberals demonized him as a plutocrat. Even members of Mr. Mnuchin’s immediate family distanced themselves; his liberal father said he was appalled by his son’s politics.
When the pandemic hit, the task of saving the economy was an opportunity for Mr. Mnuchin to transform himself from an unremarkable Treasury secretary into a national hero.
Mr. Mnuchin, a former banker and film financier, sought advice from his former Goldman Sachs colleagues, a cable-TV host, a Hollywood superagent, a disgraced Wall Street tycoon and Newt Gingrich. Unburdened by his own ideology and with a detail-disoriented boss, Mr. Mnuchin worked with Democrats to devise and pass the landmark stimulus bill.
Afterward, Mr. Trump hailed Mr. Mnuchin as a “great” Treasury secretary and “fantastic guy.”
The acclaim didn’t last. Republicans argued that Mr. Mnuchin had been outfoxed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the embodiment of free-spending liberals and, in Mr. Trump’s words, “a sick woman” with “mental problems.”
The conservative critique began to resonate with the president.
Thanks to the stimulus package, the economy had stabilized, but it was still on life support. Millions continued to lose their jobs. More help was needed. Was Mr. Mnuchin’s initial bipartisan success a fluke, or would he be able to save the American economy again?
The omens were bad. That spring day in the Oval Office, the president was venting about the stimulus package.
“I never should have signed it,” Mr. Trump bellowed, according to someone who was there. He pointed at his Treasury secretary. “You’re to blame.”
A Custom-Upholstered Porsche
Mr. Mnuchin is the rare cabinet secretary who does not seem to have strong political beliefs. “I don’t know if Steve is a Republican or Democrat,” said Larry Kudlow, the White House economic adviser. “I do know he’s smart and a hard worker.”
Mr. Trump has told people that he suspects that, deep down, Mr. Mnuchin is a Democrat. (Mr. Mnuchin has said he has always been a registered Republican. Still, he donated to Kamala Harris’s Senate campaign in 2016.)
Mr. Mnuchin attended Yale. He was publisher of The Yale Daily News during the 1983-84 school year. A fan of the “objectivist” novelist Ayn Rand, he showed little interest in journalism or the causes of the day. What he cared about was turning a profit. Mr. Mnuchin persuaded the future media mogul Sumner Redstone to become an advertiser and kept a tight lid on costs.
“What struck me at the time was a really narrow insistence on the paper’s profit at the expense of what I thought we were there to do, which was inform, entertain, enlighten,” said Anndee Hochman, the editor in chief during Mr. Mnuchin’s tenure.
Brett Ratner, Mr. Mnuchin’s longtime Hollywood partner, producing films such as “The Lego Batman Movie,” said he had no inkling that Mr. Mnuchin cared about politics. Then one day in 2016 Mr. Mnuchin announced that he was joining the fledgling Trump campaign as finance chairman.
“I nearly fell out of my chair,” Mr. Ratner said.
Mr. Mnuchin had no political fund-raising experience. But he had a social and business relationship with the candidate. And after watching an adoring Indianapolis crowd scream for Mr. Trump — the only thing Mr. Mnuchin could compare it to was when Mick Jagger had taken him to a Rolling Stones concert — Mr. Mnuchin was convinced that Mr. Trump would win.
On the surface, the flamboyant candidate and the often dour Mr. Mnuchin appeared to have little in common. But the two men shared an interest in deals, especially of the real estate variety. Mr. Mnuchin made his name at Goldman Sachs in the mortgage-backed bonds business. And like Mr. Trump he owned a portfolio of luxury properties: a mansion in the Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles, a duplex in Manhattan’s prestigious 740 Park Avenue building, a waterfront estate in Southampton, N.Y. — the list went on. Days after being confirmed as Treasury secretary he paid $12.6 million for a nine-bedroom mansion in Washington.
Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Trump also both had to vie for the attention of wealthy, self-made fathers. Robert Mnuchin, himself a former top executive at Goldman Sachs, has said that as he pursued his Wall Street career, he spent little time with Steven and his brother. (He has mused to acquaintances about whether his neglect fueled his son’s ambitions.) Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Mnuchin had a gilded youth; his red Porsche featured custom plaid upholstery.
After the election, Mr. Trump tried to recruit Jamie Dimon, the JPMorgan Chase chief executive, to be Treasury secretary. Mr. Dimon, a Democrat, said no, according to a person with direct knowledge of the discussions.
Mr. Mnuchin showed up for his job interview at Mr. Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J., with three pages of notes detailing his credentials: He made partner at Goldman; he ran a hedge fund, Dune Capital; he earned a fortune buying and selling IndyMac Bank in California; he financed a slate of Hollywood movies.
Mr. Mnuchin’s career was a success — his net worth was more than $400 million — but he was hardly a top-tier financial player. He had never been a candidate to lead Goldman; Dune was small by hedge fund standards; IndyMac was tainted by allegations of abusive foreclosures; quite a few of his films were flops.
Mr. Mnuchin got the job, but things didn’t get off to a great start. Republicans jeered him when he pleaded to raise the national debt limit. Critics in the administration derided him as a Wall Street apologist. The White House trade adviser, Peter Navarro, likened him to Neville Chamberlain — the British prime minister who infamously appeased the Nazis — for his aversion to a trade war with China.
But Mr. Mnuchin cemented his bond with Mr. Trump after the president said white supremacists who had marched in Charlottesville, Va., included some “very fine people.”
Mr. Mnuchin wrote an open letter to former Yale classmates who had called on him to resign: “I feel compelled to let you know that the president in no way, shape or form believes that neo-Nazi and other hate groups who endorse violence are equivalent to groups that demonstrate in peaceful and lawful ways.”
Then, at the end of Mr. Trump’s first year in office, Mr. Mnuchin eased a $1.5 trillion package of tax cuts through the Republican-controlled Congress. It was the president’s signature legislative achievement.
‘A Very Complicated Relationship’
One day last year, Howard Saunders encountered Robert Mnuchin at the Matthew Marks art gallery in Manhattan. The two strangers — Mr. Saunders an artist, Mr. Mnuchin a prominent gallery owner and art dealer — struck up a conversation. It turned awkward when Mr. Saunders realized he was speaking to the Treasury secretary’s father. Sounding disgusted, Mr. Saunders asked Mr. Mnuchin about his son.
The elder Mr. Mnuchin appeared pained. “His politics appall me, too, really appall me,” he replied, according to Mr. Saunders. “But he’s my son.”
Robert Mnuchin didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article. When a New York Times reporter asked him about his son last year, he demurred but seemed to be near tears.
Robert Mnuchin’s wife, Adriana, has reminded people that she is not Steven’s biological mother. (The couple married when he was a toddler.) She reluctantly attended Steven’s 2017 wedding to the Scottish-born actress Louise Linton. Ms. Mnuchin pretended her arm was injured in order to avoid having to shake hands with Mr. Trump, according to her grandson Zan Mnuchin Rozen.
Even Ms. Linton has said people shouldn’t assume she shares her husband’s politics.
Mr. Rozen, 22, wrote on Facebook in June that “my uncle has been complicit in, and in some cases directly culpable for, many years of the marginalization, persecution and stereotyping of black people in the United States.” His actions “cannot and will never be defensible.”
Mr. Rozen deleted the post but said he stood by what he had written. “It’s a very complicated relationship,” he said. “There’s definitely some tension.”
Mr. Mnuchin said in one of two recent interviews for this article that he tried to avoid discussing politics with his family.
‘Pink Panther’ Impersonations
Mr. Mnuchin, 57, is tall and lanky. He keeps fit by taking his Secret Service detail on roughly 40-mile bike rides to and from Mount Vernon. He recently took up boxing.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Mnuchin had not accumulated much good will outside the Trump administration. He comes across as stiff and aloof. He rarely smiles or indulges in small talk, at least in public. (To break the ice, he occasionally impersonates Inspector Clouseau from the “Pink Panther” films.)
Democrats and independent watchdogs have pilloried Mr. Mnuchin for appearing to help his old banking buddies. He was accused of conflicts of interest for urging to get China to let more Hollywood films, like those he produced, into the country. Last year he flew from Washington to Los Angeles on the private aircraft of Michael R. Milken, the billionaire junk-bond pioneer convicted of conspiracy and fraud. Mr. Mnuchin at the time was pushing for him to receive a presidential pardon.
Mr. Mnuchin is a self-proclaimed micromanager. Career members of the tax policy staff rarely met with Treasury secretaries in previous administrations; they are regularly called to brief Mr. Mnuchin. On March 2, as financial markets were in upheaval, Mr. Mnuchin held a one-hour meeting about the “grain glitch,” a technical wrinkle in the 2017 tax law.
Until the second week of March, Mr. Mnuchin, like most people in the Trump administration, regarded the coronavirus as a minor threat to the U.S. economy.
Mr. Mnuchin opposed aggressive efforts to curb the virus, arguing in White House meetings that it was no worse than the seasonal flu and worrying that halting flights from China would provoke the Chinese government. (Monica Crowley, a Treasury spokeswoman, said Mr. Mnuchin did not oppose restricting flights.)
Mr. Trump imposed the flight ban. Mr. Mnuchin accepted Mr. Trump’s decision and moved on, which colleagues say is typical: He offers opinions when asked, even when he knows Mr. Trump will disagree, and then executes whatever the president decides. He appears to have little stake in particular outcomes. Does he agree or disagree with Mr. Trump’s stance on a given issue? In Mr. Mnuchin’s view, that is irrelevant. He is there to follow orders.
‘Big Trouble Coming’
In early March, investors were panicking at the prospect of a prolonged national emergency. Airline travel collapsed. Unemployment claims leapt. By the end of the month’s first week, stock markets were down nearly 20 percent from their high.
The next week got off to an even worse start, with stock markets plunging another 8 percent on Monday, March 9.
That afternoon, Mr. Mnuchin joined Mr. Trump and his coronavirus task force at the White House. Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, delivered grim news: The virus was spreading in the United States at an exponential rate.
“There’s big trouble coming,” Mr. Mnuchin said to Mr. Kudlow as they left the room.
“I’m afraid you’re right,” Mr. Kudlow agreed.
The next day, Mr. Trump spoke about the virus on Capitol Hill. “Just stay calm,” he urged. “It will go away.”
Mr. Mnuchin, however, had shifted into crisis mode.
He spoke with Ms. Pelosi that afternoon to talk about an economic rescue plan. Mr. Mnuchin was pretty much the only member of the administration on speaking terms with the House speaker. (They had developed a working relationship while negotiating an increase in the national debt ceiling last year.) They discussed bailouts for the airline and hotel industries, cash payments to workers, and aid for small businesses.
Afterward, Mr. Mnuchin called the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and got his blessing to pursue the negotiations on his own.
“The secretary of the Treasury is going to have ball control for the administration,” Mr. McConnell told reporters after their talk. “We’re hoping that he and the speaker can pull this together.”
Stress was building in the credit markets, the lifeblood of the modern financial system. Trading of commercial paper — a vital day-to-day financing source for major companies — was drying up. Investors were dumping municipal bonds, jeopardizing the ability of states and cities to borrow money and pay employees.
The anxiety was pouring into the stock markets, which Mr. Trump viewed as a barometer for the health of the economy and his presidency. On Thursday morning, Mr. Mnuchin had breakfast with Jerome H. Powell, the Federal Reserve chair, in the Treasury secretary’s private dining room. They came up with a plan for the Fed and Treasury to intervene in financial markets to provide a modicum of stability.
That day, as stocks fell another 10 percent, Mr. Mnuchin had eight phone calls with Ms. Pelosi as they worked out details of a relief package.
Mr. Mnuchin was amenable to what looked like a Democratic wish list of economic remedies: paid sick leave, paid family medical leave and aid to states to expand unemployment benefits.
The next day, they spoke 18 times. That night they agreed on a roughly $200 billion package to help struggling families. It had come together in barely two days. Mr. Trump signed it the next week.
An Eclectic Cast of Advisers
On Monday, March 16, Mr. Mnuchin joined the president and a half-dozen other advisers for what Mr. Mnuchin said was the most difficult decision of the Trump presidency. The coronavirus was out of control. It was time to shut down large swaths of the American economy.
It was already clear that the $200 billion wouldn’t be enough: The government would need to go to the rescue of failing businesses and the millions of unemployed. Mr. Mnuchin said Mr. Trump had advised him to “think big.”
This would be the real test for Mr. Mnuchin. Democrats were happy to go big, but Republicans were already grumpy about the size of the previous relief bill. Did Mr. Mnuchin agree or disagree with Republicans? It was irrelevant. He needed to get something done.
He and Ms. Pelosi began sketching out an enormous stimulus plan. Republican senators immediately balked. They told Mr. Mnuchin that another $500 billion seemed ample. Mr. Mnuchin warned of dire economic consequences — including unemployment of more than 20 percent — if senators failed to get on board with something closer to $1 trillion.
Some of those scary consequences were already visible. The stock market continued to crater. In an early-morning phone call that week with David Solomon, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, Mr. Mnuchin discussed the draconian idea of shortening trading hours at major stock exchanges in an effort to ease the sell-off, according to a person briefed on the call. Mr. Solomon said such a move would worsen the panic.
Mr. Mnuchin also was consulting with an eclectic cast from Wall Street and Hollywood. He spoke repeatedly to his friend Mr. Milken, whom Mr. Trump pardoned in February. (Geoffrey Moore, a spokesman for Mr. Milken, said that “Mike and Mr. Mnuchin have spoken from time to time about general health and economic issues.”)
He also chatted twice that week with Ari Emanuel, one of Hollywood’s premier agents, who warned that the entertainment and sports industries were in serious trouble.
Mr. Mnuchin and Mr. Powell, the Fed chair, began unveiling emergency measures to thaw crucial markets. They and their staffs were working round the clock, ordering in burgers and Nando’s chicken; a measure to shore up money market funds was announced at midnight. The Fed would go on to buy $1 trillion of commercial paper as well as junk bonds.
In Lyndon Johnson’s Office
Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker, was in Rome, where his wife, Callista, is the American ambassador to the Vatican. Italy was locked down as the virus rampaged. Mr. Gingrich marveled at the sight of the deserted Colosseum.
He had been out of office for two decades, but he did have a newsletter. “We should be planning for a worst-case pandemic and using the kind of intensity of implementation which served us so well in World War II,” he wrote.
Mr. Gingrich sent the newsletter to Mr. Trump. Mr. Mnuchin read it. A few days later, he called Mr. Gingrich. The Treasury secretary outlined the package that he and Ms. Pelosi were envisioning, including industry bailouts and $1,200 payments to millions of Americans. What did Mr. Gingrich think of the roughly $1 trillion effort?
“That’s not nearly enough,” he responded, again invoking World War II. “It should be $3 trillion.”
Mr. Mnuchin said in a recent interview that he had “always thought $1 trillion was a lot,” but he agreed with Mr. Gingrich that this “was a war we had to win.”
The Treasury secretary began to think bigger. Soon the package swelled to about $2 trillion.
Something needed to be done for small businesses. Mr. Mnuchin spoke regularly to the CNBC host Jim Cramer. Mr. Cramer seemed positioned to understand the plight of small companies because he owned a Mexican and an Italian restaurant in Brooklyn. When Mr. Mnuchin called in to his show, Mr. Cramer said small businesses needed money but couldn’t afford to go deeper into debt. Mr. Mnuchin unveiled a forgivable-loan program.
Over the next week, the Treasury secretary all but moved into the Capitol, occupying the Senate office once belonging to Lyndon Johnson.
Republicans were not happy. The whole thing was too big. They were particularly displeased with a Democratic proposal to expand unemployment benefits by $600 a week, which meant some unemployed workers would collect more in benefits than they had earned while working.
Mr. Mnuchin wasn’t thrilled, either, but he gave in to Democrats to speed the bill through the House. He told Republicans that it wasn’t technically feasible to tailor the size of the unemployment benefit to a worker’s previous wages.
For a while, that looked like it might be a deal breaker for Republicans. The stock market seesawed along with the perceived odds of a deal. By Friday, March 20, the S&P 500 index was down 34 percent from its February peak — below where it was when Mr. Trump took office.
Mr. Mnuchin spent the weekend working the phones, with 49 phone calls on Sunday alone, including to influential Republican senators. “We need to get this deal done today,” he told Mr. Cramer on CNBC on Monday.
Republican senators slowly got on board, fearful of the fallout if they were seen as blocking a rescue package. The Senate passed the bill, markets soared, and Mr. Trump signed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act.
At a news conference, the president declared himself pleased with “our great secretary of the Treasury.” He added, “He’s a fantastic guy and he loves our country, and he’s been dealing with both sides — Republican and Democrat.”
Fox News on the Warpath
The stimulus package had glitches. Hospitals received bailouts and then fired workers. Unemployment benefits were slow to materialize. Large companies got multimillion-dollar loans intended for small businesses.
But to a remarkable degree, the law worked. The unemployment rate, which was 14.7 percent in April, declined to 10.2 percent in July. By August, stock markets were at record levels.
“Not many Treasury secretaries could have gotten something that size done so quickly,” gushed Mr. Dimon, Mr. Trump’s first choice for Treasury secretary.
But Republicans were furious with Mr. Mnuchin. The $600-per-week unemployment benefit was a particular sore spot.
Tomas Philipson, a former acting head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers under Mr. Trump, faulted Mr. Mnuchin for monopolizing the president’s ear. “There wasn’t any debate,” he said. “He implemented probably the fastest stimulus program ever implemented, but Mnuchin is not a policy formulator or policy evaluator.”
Fox News and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page went on the warpath. Republican lawmakers grumbled that Mr. Mnuchin — and therefore the Trump administration — had caved to Ms. Pelosi and her caucus.
For a president who views politics as a zero-sum game, it was a potent line of attack.
“When people ask why have I succeeded in this job, one, I understand why the president is the president. I was there — I saw why he won,” Mr. Mnuchin said in a mid-August interview in a Treasury Department conference room overlooking the White House.
He insisted that he didn’t take the criticism personally. After all, Mr. Mnuchin said, he is simply acting on behalf of Mr. Trump. “Anything that’s significant or material I check with the president.”
As for Mr. Trump yelling at him in the Oval Office, Ms. Crowley, the Treasury spokeswoman, said, “We do not comment on the secretary’s conversations with the president.”
In July, key elements of the stimulus package — including the generous unemployment benefits — were set to expire. Negotiations got underway to provide businesses and individuals with additional relief. House Democrats passed legislation calling for more than $3 trillion in additional spending. The White House countered with proposals that added up to about $1 trillion.
This time, Mr. Mnuchin was chaperoned to Capitol Hill by Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff and a former right-wing congressman from North Carolina.
Emboldened by a soaring stock market, Mr. Trump told the men to play hardball. They were not to accept another bill packed with Democratic policies. Did Mr. Mnuchin agree or disagree? It was irrelevant.
The conciliatory Mr. Mnuchin whom Democrats had come to appreciate in March was now largely muzzled by Mr. Meadows, who at one point pounded his fist on a table and yelled at Ms. Pelosi.
“You’re supposed to be a good influence on him,” Chuck Schumer, the top Senate Democrat, quipped to Mr. Mnuchin, according to a person familiar with the conversation. “He’s not supposed to be a bad influence on you.”
When unemployment benefits expired, and both sides remained at an impasse, Mr. Meadows seemed unfazed. He told Republican senators that he was happy to be “the skunk at the party,” according to someone who was there.
Mr. Mnuchin professes to be happy with Mr. Meadows at his side. “We make a great team,” he said.
That team, however, was unable to strike a deal with Democrats. The White House walked away from the talks this month. The president instead issued a series of executive actions that would defer taxes, slow evictions and provide $300 a week in jobless benefits. Critics from both parties questioned the actions’ legality and practicality.
Mr. Mnuchin reached out to Ms. Pelosi to try once more. He hewed to the White House’s refusal to extend the $600-a-week unemployment benefit or to provide federal aid to big-spending (and generally Democratic-voting) states. After they talked, Ms. Pelosi publicly accused Mr. Mnuchin of not taking the crisis seriously. Mr. Mnuchin responded that her comments were “not an accurate reflection” of their conversation.
The talks appeared dead.
Asked to comment on Mr. Mnuchin, a White House spokesman, Brian Morgenstern, provided a statement that did not mention the Treasury secretary. Mr. Morgenstern said the president’s team worked “under his leadership and direction.” He added: “President Trump was elected because he is an outstanding negotiator.”