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 Mr. Mnuchin, one of President Trump’s most enduring and trusted advisers, was winning the internal trade battle that has gripped the White House.
Then Mr. 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.
.. The scolding laid bare the uncomfortably familiar spot that Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s good graces while advocating a more free-trade approach, but that balancing act is showing signs of strain.
.. Mr. Mnuchin, unflappable in public, is privately making his case with a president
.. The internal tensions boiled over in May during a trade mission Mr. Mnuchin led to China, when he dressed down Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s hawkish trade adviser, by reminding him where he stood in the administration’s pecking order after Mr. Navarro confronted him about being sidelined from the talks.
.. Current and former White House and Treasury officials say Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s marching orders, even if his message did not win the day.
.. Mr. 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 American sanctions on Iran and North Korea. The decision blindsided administration officials and lawmakers
.. Mr. 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.
.. those close to the secretary say he has learned to appreciate Mr. Trump’s use of the threat of tariffs as a negotiating tool.
.. focused on the president’s desire to see the bilateral trade deficit reduced, rather than emphasizing some of the other trade barriers
.. Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former top strategist, has said that Mr. Mnuchin is in over his head in the negotiations and that he is letting Mr. Trump’s leverage slip away by failing to force China to make major changes to its industrial policy.
.. it was apparent that the Chinese government was trying to elevate Mr. Mnuchin’s role in the negotiations because they see him as the American official most likely to cut a deal.
.. “Among the possible choices, they see Mnuchin as being less hawkish than some of the other counterparts,”
.. populist voices outside the administration have already been heckling Mr. 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.
.. Mr. 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.
.. Mr. 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.
.. Last August, fellow alumni of Yale, where Mr. Mnuchin earned a bachelor’s degree, called on the secretary to resign when he defended Mr. Trump’s handling of racially inspired violence in Charlottesville, Va. A month later, Lawrence Summers, a Clinton administration Treasury secretary, called Mr. Mnuchin the “greatest sycophant in cabinet history” for supporting Mr. Trump’s criticism of football players who knelt during the national anthem.
.. points to his role in successfully steering the Republican tax cut package, which many said would never pass, through Congress.
.. Within the Treasury Department, Mr. 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 carrying out the new tax law to overseeing financial sanctions.
.. When the Internal Revenue Service systems failed on Tax Day, the response to the crash was slowed because Mr. Mnuchin was in New Hampshire
.. He had required that any big decisions be cleared by him
.. Mr. 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
Administration officials have been trying to reassure journalists that James Mattis, John Kelly and Rex Tillerson have a pact designed to ensure that one of them is always in the country to watch over Trump in case he goes off the deep end.
.. a Nixon defense secretary, James Schlesinger, got so worried about a cratering Nixon — who was drinking and telling congressmen, “I can go in my office and pick up a telephone, and in 25 minutes, millions of people will be dead” — that he told military commanders to check with him or Henry Kissinger if the president ordered up nukes.
.. In all my interviews of Trump over the years, he never seemed very chesty about foreign intervention. “If only we could have Saddam back, as bad as he was, rather than $2 trillion spent, thousands of lives lost and all these wounded warriors,” he told me during the campaign.
.. His pitch was mostly about turning inward, so America could shore up its economy, security and infrastructure. “Unlike other candidates, war and aggression will not be my first instinct,” he said in his maiden foreign policy speech on the trail.
.. Now, in case North Korea is too far away, Trump is threatening “a possible military option” closer to home, in Venezuela.
.. Watching Trump, 71, and Kim, 33, trade taunts is particularly disturbing because they mirror each other in so many unhinged ways. Trump is a democratically elected strongman and Kim is a fratricidal despot, but they both live in bizarro fantasy worlds where lying and cheating is the norm.
They’re both spoiled scions who surpassed less ruthless older brothers to join their authoritarian fathers in the family business. They both make strange fashion statements with their hair and enjoy bullying and hyperbole. They both love military parades, expect “Dear Leader” displays of fawning and favor McDonald’s and Madonna.
They both demand allegiance. When Trump feels he isn’t getting it or paranoia takes over, he publicly mocks his lieutenants or jettisons them. Kim simply gets out his antiaircraft machine guns and calls up his nerve-agent assassins. He had his uncle killed for, among the reasons, clapping halfheartedly, The Times reported.
“Kim understands Trump better than Trump understands himself,” Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio told me. “He is only comfortable dominating and forcing others into submission. When that’s not happening, he experiences an almost physical discomfort because he feels unsafe. He doesn’t know any other way to achieve status.”
.. Proving there’s no method to his madness, Trump went after Mitch McConnell, who is literally the most important person to Trump in pushing his agenda through Congress and who, as Carl Hulse wrote in The Times, secured the president “the signature accomplishment of his young presidency” by getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed