The Weirdest Partnership in Washington

Steve Mnuchin and Nancy Pelosi are working together to blunt the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

Nancy Pelosi and Steve Mnuchin
Mark Makela / Barcroft Media / Getty / The Atlantic

Last week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on Capitol Hill, speaking with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on his cellphone, when the connection started to go bad. Pelosi invited him over to talk in person. They met in her office, sitting in yellow-striped chairs with a view of the Washington Monument. No aides were in the room.

That sounds like a small gesture. Considering the venom flowing freely between Pelosi and Mnuchin’s boss, though, it’s Capulet and Montague territory. “Mnuchin is operational,” a House Democratic aide with insight into the talks told me, using a term that Pelosi views as a high compliment. “He goes step by step. It’s very similar to the way she approaches things.”

With Donald Trump and Pelosi barely on speaking terms, and the White House preoccupied with the coronavirus outbreak, Mnuchin and Pelosi’s relationship is central to staving off economic collapse. When they speak by phone, they will step away from aides, cutting down on leaks and building trust. Their conversations last week led to an agreement for paid sick leave, free testing, and other measures meant to blunt the virus’s impact. That deal took work: One day, the former Goldman Sachs executive and the avatar of San Francisco liberalism spoke 20 times. As the coronavirus spreads and the nation shuts down, inflicting unprecedented economic damage, even more pressure will be put on the unlikely partners to keep talking.

Pelosi’s team made a few heartening discoveries during previous negotiations with Mnuchin: He’s a pragmatist and a power center in his own right. Over the summer, Pelosi hosted a meeting in her office with Mnuchin and two of Trump’s fiscal hawks—Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Budget Chief Russell Vought—to talk about raising the debt ceiling.

“It was clear right away that Mnuchin was in charge. He said at the meeting, ‘I’m here as long as it takes,’” the Democratic aide told me. Pelosi was put off by the more hard-line stance coming from Mulvaney, who sought deeper domestic spending cuts. By the end, she refused to even meet with Mulvaney, the aide said. It was just as well. The agreement that emerged gave Pelosi what she wanted: more money for health, education, and other Democratic spending priorities. It staved off a default on the nation’s loans—which is what Mnuchin needed. Fiscal conservatives balked at rising deficits, but it didn’t matter. Mnuchin was driving economic policy.

Neither Mnuchin nor Pelosi has an entirely free hand. Pelosi faces pressure from Democratic House members and interest groups worried that the recovery package will turn out to be a corporate bailout. Mnuchin has a constituency of one: Trump. But that’s no less tricky. The Democratic aide said that when the two sides were negotiating last week, it was evident that Mnuchin was checking in with Trump to get his approval. Should Mnuchin appear too deferential to Pelosi, the president is apt to be unhappy. Trump watches these sorts of things. At a public appearance earlier this month, he was asked about Vice President Mike Pence’s dealings with Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who is combatting one of the nation’s biggest outbreaks. Pence had been complimentary of Inslee’s performance. Trump said he told Pence not to praise Inslee, because the governor is “a snake.”

“So Mike might be happy with him, but I’m not,” Trump said.

Should Mnuchin seem too happy with Pelosi, he might find himself sidelined. White House aides fall in and out of favor with the president. Steve Bannon was at one time Trump’s strategic mastermind. Then he was ousted from the White House. Then he was rehabilitated in Trump’s mind.

Yet in this frightening period, Mnuchin may be indispensable. No one else in the upper reaches of the Trump administration seems to grasp just how to talk with Pelosi and make the relationship work. “They both understand that they’re the go-to designees for high-level talks,” a senior Treasury official told me.

For Pelosi, the crisis has a certain symmetry. Every 12 years, it seems, the Treasury secretary in a Republican administration approaches her and asks if she’d please come up with the votes to save the U.S. economy from oblivion. At the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, a Goldman Sachs veteran like Mnuchin, famously dropped to a knee and pleaded with her to back a bailout package meant to combat the financial crisis. (Charmed or not, Pelosi corralled the votes to pass it.) Mnuchin may have his limits. Nadeam Elshami, Pelosi’s former chief of staff, told me: “I don’t think Secretary Mnuchin has gotten on his knees and begged yet.”