Before the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Mnuchin had not accumulated much good will outside the Trump administration. He comes across as stiff and aloof. He rarely smiles or indulges in small talk, at least in public. (To break the ice, he occasionally impersonates Inspector Clouseau from the “Pink Panther” films.)
Democrats and independent watchdogs have pilloried Mr. Mnuchin for appearing to help his old banking buddies. He was accused of conflicts of interest for urging to get China to let more Hollywood films, like those he produced, into the country. Last year he flew from Washington to Los Angeles on the private aircraft of Michael R. Milken, the billionaire junk-bond pioneer convicted of conspiracy and fraud. Mr. Mnuchin at the time was pushing for him to receive a presidential pardon.
Mr. Mnuchin is a self-proclaimed micromanager. Career members of the tax policy staff rarely met with Treasury secretaries in previous administrations; they are regularly called to brief Mr. Mnuchin. On March 2, as financial markets were in upheaval, Mr. Mnuchin held a one-hour meeting about the “grain glitch,” a technical wrinkle in the 2017 tax law.
Until the second week of March, Mr. Mnuchin, like most people in the Trump administration, regarded the coronavirus as a minor threat to the U.S. economy.
Mr. Mnuchin opposed aggressive efforts to curb the virus, arguing in White House meetings that it was no worse than the seasonal flu and worrying that halting flights from China would provoke the Chinese government. (Monica Crowley, a Treasury spokeswoman, said Mr. Mnuchin did not oppose restricting flights.)
Mr. Trump imposed the flight ban. Mr. Mnuchin accepted Mr. Trump’s decision and moved on, which colleagues say is typical: He offers opinions when asked, even when he knows Mr. Trump will disagree, and then executes whatever the president decides. He appears to have little stake in particular outcomes. Does he agree or disagree with Mr. Trump’s stance on a given issue? In Mr. Mnuchin’s view, that is irrelevant. He is there to follow orders.
‘Big Trouble Coming’
In early March, investors were panicking at the prospect of a prolonged national emergency. Airline travel collapsed. Unemployment claims leapt. By the end of the month’s first week, stock markets were down nearly 20 percent from their high.