WASHINGTON -- Last summer, when President Donald Trump said there were “some very fine people” among the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, he was standing in Trump Tower with two of his top economic advisers, Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin.
In the days that followed, those two men, both Jewish, made very different choices.
Cohn, after hesitating, spoke out about his “distress” and said “this administration can and must do better” in condemning white supremacists.
By contrast, Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, like Cohn a Goldman Sachs alum, rejected a plea from 300 Yale classmates to protest “Trump’s support of Nazism,” saying the “allegations” are inaccurate and blaming the press and Trump’s opponents for an attempt to “distract.”
Cohn’s principled action likely cost him the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve. Last month, Cohn quit as the head of the National Economic Council after clashing with Trump over trade. Mnuchin remains in the president’s good graces despite policy gaffes and embarrassing stories about personal extravagance.
It is the triumph of the bootlicker.
Six months ago, Lawrence H. Summers, a former treasury secretary, said “Mnuchin may be the greatest sycophant in Cabinet history.”
There is no longer need for a qualifier.
This is the key to survival in the administration -- not policy chops, political finesse or ethical behavior. Capacity to flatter the boss invariably tops ability. With few exceptions, Trump has tolerated unseemly entitlement -- governments jets, lavish office furnishings, help for family members, missing financial disclosures -- from those who are obsequious.
David Shulkin, who contradicted Trump after Charlottesville by expressing his outrage at the Nazis, was sacked as veterans affairs secretary despite success at the agency, while the loyal Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency, whose $43,000 phone booth and $50-per-night condo from a lobbyist are more dubious than anything Shulkin was accused of, so far retains Trump’s confidence. Trump proposes to replace Shulkin with the White House doctor, who has few qualifications beyond rhapsodizing about the president’s “incredible” health.
By this standard, Mnuchin has guaranteed employment.
A few weeks ago, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he gamely defended Trump calling an African-American congresswoman “a low-IQ individual.” Mnuchin explained that “the president likes making funny names.”
The treasury secretary weighed in on ABC News about Trump’s attack on “son-of-a bitch” NFL players who kneel during the national anthem, saying, “I think the president can use whatever language he wants to use.”
Two weeks ago, on Fox News, Mnuchin defended Trump’s call for Congress to give him a line-item veto, even when told the Supreme Court had ruled it unconstitutional. “Well,” Mnuchin said, “Congress could pass a rule, OK, that allows them to do it.”
Such performances have allowed Mnuchin to weather all trials: failing to disclose $100 million in real estate assets before his confirmation, as well as his directorship of a Cayman Islands holding corporation; his violation of ethics rules in telling people to “send your kids to Lego Batman,” a movie he produced; Mnuchin inquiring about a government jet for his European honeymoon; his wife, Louise Linton, posting a photo tagging designers she was wearing as she disembarked from a government plane, on a trip during which they viewed the solar eclipse; Linton, dismissing a critic by saying, “Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband?”
He has been variously imperious and bumbling at treasury, telling bankers “you should all thank me for your bank stocks doing better,” directing lawmakers skeptical about a spending bill to “vote for it for me,” and sending U.S. currency to a three-year low with an offhand comment that “a weaker dollar is good for us.”
When he came into office, Mnuchin promised that “there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class.” Then the administration embraced a plan that gave most of a $1.5 trillion absolute tax cut to the rich.
Yet at UCLA last month, Mnuchin, who is worth some $300 million, claimed that “I’m not getting a tax cut.” He said the cuts would not add anything to the debt, and neither would the $1.3 trillion spending bill. He then falsely asserted the administration was fully enforcing Russia sanctions passed last year.
The performance didn’t go well. Students hissed and heckled. Mnuchin told them they “obviously aren’t getting paychecks yet,” scolded the moderator for having a “bias” and tried to end his questions. After the debacle, Mnuchin moved to block UCLA from releasing video of the event.
Mnuchin then called off a Q&A he had discussed doing at Yale this weekend. And maybe silence is best. Bootlicking may secure his job with Trump, but a sycophant is without honor, even at his alma mater.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.