Before the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Mnuchin had not accumulated much goodwill outside of the Trump administration. He seems stiff and distant. He rarely smiles or engages in small conversations, at least in public. (To break the ice, he sometimes masquerades as Inspector Clouseau from the “Pink Panther” movies.)
Democrats and independent watchdogs have pilloried Mr Mnuchin for appearing to help his former banking buddies. He has been charged with conflicts of interest for urging China to allow more Hollywood films, like the ones he produced, into the country. Last year, he flew from Washington to Los Angeles on the private plane of Michael R. Milken, the billionaire junk-bond pioneer convicted of conspiracy and fraud. At the time, Mr. Mnuchin was pushing for a presidential pardon.
Mr. Mnuchin is a self-proclaimed micromanager. Career tax policy staff have rarely met with treasury secretaries in previous administrations; they are regularly called to inform Mr. Mnuchin. On March 2, as financial markets were in turmoil, Mr. Mnuchin held a one-hour meeting on the “grain glitch,” a technical flaw in the 2017 tax law.
Until the second week of March, Mr. Mnuchin, like most people in the Trump administration, viewed the coronavirus as a minor threat to the U.S. economy.
Mr Mnuchin opposed aggressive efforts to fight the virus, arguing in White House meetings that it was no worse than the seasonal flu and fearing that stopping flights from China could cause the Chinese government. (Monica Crowley, spokeswoman for the Treasury, said Mr Mnuchin did not oppose the restriction on flights.)
Mr. Trump imposed the flight ban. Mr. Mnuchin has accepted Mr. Trump’s decision and moved on, which his colleagues describe as typical: he offers opinions when asked, even though he knows Mr. Trump will not be. okay, then do whatever the president decides. He seems to have little interest in the particular results. Does he agree or disagree with Mr. Trump’s position on any given issue? In Mr. Mnuchin’s opinion, this is irrelevant. He’s there to follow orders.
“Big problem to come”
In early March, investors panicked at the prospect of a prolonged national emergency. Air travel has collapsed. Unemployment claims have jumped. At the end of the first week of the month, the stock markets were down almost 20% from their peak.