Steven Mnuchin wins praise for Coronavirus stimulus bill negotiations

Alfredo Ortiz, president and CEO of the conservative Job Creators Network, didn’t recognize the number on his ringing cellphone, so he didn’t answer.

The voicemail surprised him. It was Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, who was seeking his input as the Trump administration and Congress scrambled last week to assemble a $2 trillion package to fight the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I thought it was actually a scam call,” Mr. Ortiz said. “I listened to the voicemail, and it was like, ‘Hey, Alfredo, this is Steven, you know, the Treasury secretary, just trying to get a hold of you. Give me a buzz back when you get a chance.’”

Mr. Mnuchin is sometimes viewed warily by conservatives who consider him a Democrat in President Trump’s inner sanctum. But the 57-year-old former Wall Street executive is getting high marks for his round-the-clock efforts to rescue the economy and serve as a liaison between the president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. The president and the speaker haven’t spoken in five months.

“He’s even-keeled,” said a Republican familiar with the exhaustive negotiations. “He was spending long hours and really late nights at the Capitol, going between the minority and majority leader’s office.”

A Democratic aide said of Mr. Mnuchin, “You can deal with him.”

The president said his Treasury secretary “lived over in that beautiful building,” and Mr. Mnuchin agreed that he spent about five days in the LBJ Room, an ornate, frescoed space near the Senate chamber.

American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp said of Mr. Mnuchin, “He had a big week, but more importantly, he did his country a lot of good.”

Mr. Trump signed the rescue package Friday.

Mr. Mnuchin now is working to make sure that direct payments of $1,200 to most Americans and billions of dollars in loans to small businesses are delivered rapidly.

“This doesn’t do people any good if it takes a long time,” Mr. Mnuchin said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Mr. Ortiz, whose network represents small businesses, did call back after that missed phone call last week to emphasize to Mr. Mnuchin the need to get government loans to small business owners quickly.

He also urged Mr. Mnuchin to extend aid to “gig” workers and independent contractors, who usually don’t qualify for help.

In the same week, a record 3.2 million people filed for unemployment benefits.

“We talked on multiple occasions, despite the world basically collapsing around him and trying to get the left and the right together on ideas to work with the White House,” Mr. Ortiz said. “He sounded cool, calm and collected. He took the time he needed to listen to our ideas, and not at one moment did I ever feel rushed by him. If anything, I felt like I was taking too much of his time.”

A partner at Goldman Sachs from 1994 to 2002, Mr. Mnuchin later established himself in Hollywood for bankrolling several successful and some mediocre movies, including “American Sniper” in 2014 and “The LEGO movie.” He got an acting credit for playing himself in a nonspeaking role as a Wall Street banker with Warren Beatty in “Rules Don’t Apply,” a film that also featured his future wife, Louise Linton.

When Mr. Mnuchin became national finance chairman of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign in the spring of 2016, many conservatives didn’t share Mr. Trump’s confidence in him.

“He comes from the banking world, and he had a reputation for being a Democrat,” Mr. Schlapp said. “He obviously earned a lot of respect and credibility from all of us with the amazing job he did on finance for the president’s election in 2016, and he’s figured Washington out.”

The massive cost of the rescue package, including four months worth of unemployment benefits that will pay many workers 100% or more of what they were earning in their jobs, isn’t sitting well with many conservatives. Mr. Schlapp also pointed to “dandelions” in the package such as $25 million for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and $75 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds National Public Radio.

“This is odious and unfortunately typical of the Democratic Party,” he said. “No conservative likes the price tag.”

Mr. Mnuchin said the administration needed buy-in from Democrats at a critical moment for the country.

“There’s never a deal until it’s done,” he told Fox News host Sean Hannity. “We were negotiating through the whole period. We took out anything having to do with wind [power] and the environmental issues. The president cut lots and lots of things out of this deal.”

He added, “When I do business deals, it’s win and win. But here, we needed bipartisan support. There was a price to pay.”

Mr. Schlapp said most conservatives are withholding their criticisms, for now, because they understand that the pandemic created unprecedented economic challenges.

“I think most conservatives realize that never before has the government so broadly swiped away American economic rights, and for good reason,” Mr. Schlapp said. “Literally, not allowing people to go to work, not allowing people to operate their businesses — that’s an economic taking, and the government shouldn’t be allowed to do that without a financial settlement from those who had the economic loss. That’s predominantly what we’re seeing here.”

One of the stickiest negotiating points with Democrats was a $500 billion fund to provide loans to distressed corporations. Democrats wouldn’t support the package until the White House agreed to a special inspector general to review how the administration allocates the loans.

But Mr. Trump notified Congress after signing the aid package that he will insist on presidential “supervision” of the yet-to-be appointed inspector general. The development rankled Democrats, who said it was a retreat on the bargain struck by Mr. Mnuchin.

Mrs. Pelosi said Sunday that Democrats won’t allow the president to have unilateral control over the loan process.

In an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Mrs. Pelosi also seemed to bristle at Mr. Mnuchin’s focus on the harm inflicted on financial markets during the economic shutdown. She recalled a meeting with Mr. Mnuchin a week ago Sunday in the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

“I said to them, since this is Sunday and the churches are closed, I want to begin bipartisan meeting with a prayer,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “And I quoted Pope Francis’ word of prayer under this circumstance. And he said, ‘I pray that God would enlighten those who are responsible for the common good, that they would take responsibility for those in their care.’ And Secretary Mnuchin said, ‘Well, since you quoted Pope Francis, I will quote the markets.’ And so that has taken us to another area of values, to me, about this.”

The president, who hasn’t spoken to Mrs. Pelosi since a frosty meeting Oct. 16 as the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry picked up steam, summed up Mr. Mnuchin’s value to his administration and to the nation.

“He’s a fantastic guy, and he loves our country,” the president said. “And he’s been dealing with both sides — Republican and Democrat.”

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