WASHINGTON — Two weeks ago, Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, declared that the trade war with China was “on hold” and that the United States would temporarily holster its tariffs. The reassuring comments calmed markets and raised hopes that Mnuchin, one of President Donald Trump’s most enduring and trusted advisers, was winning the internal trade battle that has gripped the White House.
Then Trump weighed in. In a one-two punch last week, the president doubled down on the trade war with China and threw in ones with Canada, Mexico and Europe for good measure.
This weekend, some of those countries hit back, as finance ministers from the six other nations attending the Group of 7 meeting in Canada issued an unusual rebuke over U.S. trading practices and the use of tariffs against allies. The statement said that tariffs “undermine open trade and confidence in the global economy” and called on Mnuchin to make their worries known to Trump.
The scolding laid bare the uncomfortably familiar spot that Mnuchin finds himself in: trying to be a voice of moderation and a statesman in an administration that sees diplomatic norms and protocols as signs of weakness.
He has so far managed to stay in Trump’s good graces while advocating a more free-trade approach, but that balancing act is showing signs of strain. Mnuchin, unflappable in public, is privately making his case with a president who campaigned on blowing up trade agreements and surrounded himself with hard-line advisers who continue to toe that line.
“You have an intellectual slugfest going on in the White House,” said Stephen Moore, the Heritage Foundation economist who advised Trump’s campaign. “Sometimes Mnuchin has victories and sometimes he has failures, but he is clearly one of the strongest voices for the free-trade position.”
The internal tensions boiled over in May during a trade mission Mnuchin led to China, when he dressed down Peter Navarro, Trump’s hawkish trade adviser, by reminding him where he stood in the administration’s pecking order after Navarro confronted him about being sidelined from the talks.
On the plane ride home, Navarro sat in a separate cabin from Mnuchin and remained publicly silent for days about the trip while Mnuchin declared the talks a success and said the trade war was on hold.
The victory was short-lived.
“He didn’t say it was on hold indefinitely,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said last week as the White House announced that the China tariffs and investment restrictions would be coming, after all.
“And look, the president ultimately makes the decisions on trade,” she added. “And when he does, we announce them. And that’s exactly what’s taken place in this process.”
Mnuchin has managed to remain in Trump’s good stead by rolling with the punches, avoiding the fate that has befallen Trump’s campaign managers, chiefs of staff and Cabinet secretaries by pleasing a president who prizes the unpredictable and governs by whim. That has given Mnuchin a key role inside the West Wing and the president’s ear.
Current and former White House and Treasury officials say Mnuchin has managed to thrive by employing a mix of assertiveness and obsequiousness, staking out his position to the president but quickly changing course to carry out Trump’s marching orders, even if his message did not win the day.
“He’s kept the focus on the president’s agenda, rather than himself,” said Jason Miller, a former campaign spokesman for Trump who worked closely with Mnuchin. “He’s managed to do it without elevating his profile too high.”
That skill was on display in mid-May, when Trump tweeted that he was going to find a way to help put back in business a Chinese telecommunications company that had been punished for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran and North Korea. The decision blindsided administration officials and lawmakers, including Democrats who publicly criticized Trump’s decision and said the president was caving to China.
Mnuchin, along with the commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, was dispatched to Capitol Hill to try to calm angry Republican lawmakers and explain the rationale behind allowing the company, ZTE, to remain in business. Several of the lawmakers appeared unconvinced and, according to a person who was in the meeting, Mnuchin advised them to take their concerns directly to the president.
He has also learned when to fight and when to toe the president’s line. While colleagues describe Mnuchin as someone who believes in free markets and views trade barriers as a last resort, those close to the secretary say he has learned to appreciate Trump’s use of the threat of tariffs as a negotiating tool.
In talks with China, he has been focused on the president’s desire to see the bilateral trade deficit reduced, rather than emphasizing some of the other trade barriers that many lawmakers and executives say put U.S. companies at a disadvantage.
Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former top strategist, has said that Mnuchin is in over his head in the negotiations and that he is letting Trump’s leverage slip away by failing to force China to make major changes to its industrial policy.
David Loevinger, the Treasury Department’s senior coordinator for China from 2009 to 2012, said it was apparent that the Chinese government was trying to elevate Mnuchin’s role in the negotiations because they see him as the U.S. official most likely to cut a deal.
“Among the possible choices, they see Mnuchin as being less hawkish than some of the other counterparts,” Loevinger said.
Trump dispatched Ross to Beijing to continue talks through Monday, but the president has expressed wavering confidence in his deal-making abilities. The China hawks within the administration, Navarro and Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. trade representative, continue to have sway with Trump. And populist voices outside the administration have already been heckling Mnuchin as inept amid reports that the United States was on the verge of making an agreement with China that was viewed as merely symbolic.
Mnuchin has at times found himself the subject of derision, characterized as a fawning banker who cannot tell the president “no.”
Last year, the Treasury secretary was scoffed at by economic policymakers from across the political spectrum for insisting that the $1.5 trillion Trump tax cuts would pay for themselves. Nearly every independent economic analysis found otherwise, and the analysis produced by the department was mocked for its lack of rigor.
He has also clashed with some of the more conservative members of the Republican Party. Last year, as the White House pressed lawmakers to raise the ceiling on how much the government can borrow, Mnuchin told members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus to “vote for the debt ceiling for me.” His plea was met with groans and hisses.
His stance on social issues has also propelled him into controversy. Last August, fellow alumni of Yale, where Mnuchin earned a bachelor’s degree, called on the secretary to resign when he defended Trump’s handling of racially inspired violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. A month later, Lawrence Summers, a Clinton administration Treasury secretary, called Mnuchin the “greatest sycophant in Cabinet history” for supporting Trump’s criticism of football players who knelt during the national anthem.
His travel, as well, has been the subject of fierce scrutiny, including a Treasury inspector general investigation, after he took several government planes to travel to places such as New York and Miami at a cost of nearly $1 million. He drew fire for inquiring about the use of an official military jet for his honeymoon, and for taking time out of a trip to Fort Knox to watch a solar eclipse with his wife, Louise Linton.
When he returned to Los Angeles for the holidays in December, he found a box of horse manure addressed to him, waiting near his home.
Mnuchin publicly brushes off the criticism and points to his role in successfully steering the Republican tax cut package, which many said would never pass, through Congress.
Within the Treasury Department, Mnuchin has developed a reputation as a micromanager. He resisted choosing a full-time deputy for more than a year, preferring to oversee everything from implementing the new tax law to financial sanctions.
That has at times created problems. When the Internal Revenue Service systems failed on Tax Day, the response to the crash was slowed because Mnuchin was in New Hampshire at a tax event with Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter. He had required that any big decisions be cleared by him, according to a senior government official.
Mnuchin’s closest aides describe him as a collegial and mentoring figure. Despite his earnest persona on television, he is known to possess a wry sense of humor, even occasionally brandishing impressions from old movies such as “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” to lighten the mood.
But when it comes to the president, Mnuchin puts up little resistance when policy decisions are made, and he even keeps his pet peeves to himself.
While Mnuchin insists that most people refer to him by his given name, Steven, he does not flinch when Trump just calls him Steve.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.