That’s a tough one considering the dull, colorless imprimatur bequeathed by his dull, colorless predecessor, Jacob Lew.
For many folks, thinking about the everyday work of Treasury is kind of like contemplating when a new coat of paint is going to dry.
Unlike Lew, Mnuchin is cut from entirely different cloth having slithered into the administration’s swamp from the glitzy, glamorous world of Hollywood where his Dune Capital investment outfit helped float such big budget boats as Mad Max: Fury Road and Suicide Squad.
Mnuchin was born with a Goldman Sach’s silver spoon in his mouth. His father, octogenarian Robert, was a trading heavyweight and one of the firm’s vaunted partners. Steven put in his time – some 17 years with the firm – but his footprint, according to a source, was light and undistinguished. It was only after leaving in 2002 that he found his true calling – Hedge Funding – teaming up with some old Goldman cronies to found Dune in 2004. Real estate investment was a prime interest and one deal, involving the construction of Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago, did pit Dune, early on, in a legal face-off with the future president.
But alas, there’s little high drama or excitement to be had in courtroom corporate battles, so Munchin cast his baleful gaze westward. Like other financial types with money to burn – for instance, Canadian Jeff Skoll – he packed up stakes and moved to L.A. Unlike Skoll, whose vision for Participant Productions was social messaging, Mnuchin was far less choosy, seeing glamour tied to rate of return.
Contacts are everything in Hollywood and Mnuchin made a few good ones. Starting in 2005, Dune began a successful co-financing arrangement with 20th Century Fox, which gestated Avatar, among others.
Having tested the shallow pools of Hollywood culture for a few years, Mncuhin decided to take the plunge, laying down $26.5 million on new digs in Bel-Air in 2009. He also followed a not uncommon LaLa Land-like script, dumping his wife of 15 years (with three kids in tow) and finding solace in the arms of a much younger actress.
(Just a note: I’m somewhat familiar with this world, having graduating NYU Film School in 1971, producing major documentaries on Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone among others, and finding an agent at CAA).
The arc of the Steven Mnuchin story then takes a Citizen Kane turn. Like Hearst doppelganger Charles Foster Kane – successful and powerful – taking on the troubled task of promoting (after marrying) lovely young, Susan Alexander – an untalented opera singer – Mnuchin, much like the protagonist in the Orson Welles classic, took a young wannabee Scottish actor and now his fiancée, Louise Linton, under his wing.
According to a piece in The Hollywood Reporter, Louise has done a bit of acting, mainly of the B-movie variety; but also in Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, which according to THR, “she promoted in panties and a garter belt in a provocative spread in Maxim which dubbed her ‘the hottest thing to come out of Scotland since microwaved haggis.’”
Her other noteworthy offering was a self-published bodice-ripper, In Congo’s Shadow: One Girl’s Perilous Journey to the Heart of Africa which purports to be a memoir of harsh and heavy travels through Zambia, forcing her, as she wrote, to elude the smirking intentions of Hutu militiamen “whose deadened eyes would brutalize me before casting me aside like a rag doll.”
Heart of Darkness it was not, nor were the reviews kindly (“the defining work of the White-Savior-in-Africa genre for the digital age,” according to the Washington Post). So savage were the commentaries that Linton was forced to pull the book. Chuckles and snickers seemed to accompany any discussion of Linton’s literary talents.
Undaunted, the couple stayed busy on the seen-and-be-seen circuit, charity events and the like, although they are an odd couple. Beautiful, blonde and elegantly dressed Linton is, for a Jewish boy like Mnuchin, the ultimate shiksa and that’s important when you’ve none of the Hollywood dash and charm of say, a Robert Redford. In fact, Mnuchin is an awkward looker with an uncomfortable demeanor reminiscent of a kid who is always bullied in the school playground; placed in a headlock and administered one too many tough noogies.
But despite his relatively unthreatening and benign appearance, there’s a Darth Vaderish side to Mnuchin. It’s a penchant for picking on the weak and vulnerable and it’s a subject that’s been well reported in the media.
Having acquired one sketchy operation, Indy Mac, in 2009, Mnuchin transformed it into an even sketchier operation, One West, which then unleashed a foreclosure beast, slashing, burning and destroying families struggling to stay in hearth and home.
Financial predators are not a very nice lot and I’ve reported on quite a few since 2011 and Mnuchin, in my opinion, is one of the worst. He’s wrapped himself in the lingo of the financial services industry which sport terms like “Distressed Assets,” (my piece, Behind Every Distressed Asset is A Distressed Human Being was published in American Banker, March, 2012). Dehumanizing the folks you prey upon is classic “distancing” psychology and, no doubt, Mnuchin sees his victims simply as tiny minnows in a revenue stream that’s made him quite rich.
Mild contrition was Mnuchin’s reaction to questions fielded by Dems during the nomination hearing when discussing One West’s foreclosure practices, but his Republican supporters gave him a pass on the subject, appearing like the proverbial three monkeys, to hear no evil, see no evil, nor did they speak of Mnuchin’s evil (which included foreclosures targeting the homes of soldiers on active duty)..
I saw a bit of Mnuchin’s handiwork in Financial Freedom v Evelyn Jackson, heard in Queens County, NY, State Supreme Court in late 2012. The plaintiff – a reverse mortgage outfit, owned by Mnuchin’s One West – was dead set on seizing the home of a Ms. Evelyn Jackson, described in the legal decision “as a female, black, grey hair of 85 years of age only 5ft. 3in. weighing 105lbs.” Ms. Jackson had been confined to a nursing home with a host of maladies that included Alzheimer’s and macular degeneration. Her son wanted to keep the home in the family.
It was pure Dickensian, save for a compassionate judge, Charles Markey, who threw the case – and Financial Freedom – out of court. He also cited some of my investigative work in this area.
The case law is already expansive on the rampant abuses in the mortgage foreclosure field. Documentary filmmaker Joel Sucher, in a series of articles for American Banker, Huffington Post, and in several other blogs available on the internet, has been an eloquent champion against the bullying, corrosive, and abusive tactics used by ‘servicers’ of mortgages in debt.
Seniors, according to California Reinvestment Coalition’s Executive Director Paulina Gonzalez, have been prime targets for reverse mortgages and Mnuchin’s Financial Freedom she specifically references has been responsible for 39 percent of foreclosures on all FHA-insured reverse mortgages since April, 2009.
Mnuchin made the decision to dump out of One West in 2014. Perhaps memories of rabble rousing outside his Bel Air home, in 2011, with protestors calling for a halt of eviction proceedings against the Guidels, a hard-working Hispanic family, helped convince him that movie-making was a more gratifying, and safer, endeavor than foreclosure. Any pain of transition was soothed by the 1.9 billion-dollar profit collected by himself and his investors after selling the whole kit and caboodle to CITI.
Fast Forward to Feb. 13th 2017 Mnuchin is confirmed as Treasury Secretary and promises to give his full unfettered attention to the new job, promising to divest himself from all financial interest in Dune Entertainment and another Hollywood based company he co-founded, RatPac. Within, four months, he’s claiming to wave bye bye to Hollywood.
You may be able to take the boy out of Hollywood but it’s a bit more difficult to remove Hollywood from a film-obsessed Secretary and no sooner can you say Kellyanne Conway than Mnuchin is giving an interview, in March, and breathily throwing in some good words about the movie released a few weeks before by RatPac, the company he co-founded.
“You should send all your kids to Lego Batman,” he tells an audience at a symposium after bloviating about his past silver screen successes.
It was an engage-brain-before-opening-mouth fail.
Reminded that the unfettering process – promised within the four month window – had not been completed, a humbled Secretary offered his “I’m Sorry” to the Office of Government Ethics.
Flash forward a few weeks to May. Fiancée Louise Linton draws the ire of Senate Finance Committee member, Ron Wyden, who finds out that future hubby has elevated her to the top CEO spot at Dune during his absence.
“Non-compensated,” responded Treasury in a May 23rd response to Wyden. Without a paycheck, Treasury claimed, she has no “personal financial interest in Dune Entertainment or its related entities,” adding that she’ll leave Dune’s top spot once the Secretary’s divestment is complete.
That will be after the roll out of Dune Entertainment’s Wonder Woman, on June 2, so while Louise did serve as Mnuchin’s eyes and ears at the company during prep for the premiere, there’s no opportunity for him to cheerlead (ironically, Israeli actor Gal Gadot, playing the empowered super-hero had had some unkind words for Mnuchin’s boss, according to the Hollywood Reporter, claiming she would have used Krav Maga to fend off unwanted Trump advances had he tried the same during her 2004 Miss Universe Pageant appearance).
Now, if divestment is complete by June 13th, there’s still time to plan for some preview screenings of other upcoming Dune releases like Dunkirk (July 21) and Justice League (Nov. 17). In the interest of glamming up Treasury, perhaps the Secretary can get a waiver and offer long-time staff a taste of real Hollywood.
Why not invite the old Hollywood crowd? Line drab Treasury hallways with Avatar movie posters? Plan a tour of the U.S. mint? Better still, fly the whole gaggle to Fort Knox for a look-see.
Can’t beat that for the ultimate coupling of Gold and Glamour. It might create a new paradigm for the Beltway.
As far as the rest of the citizenry; the ordinary folk who’ll bear the brunt of any cutbacks in the social safety net, or won’t reap the benefits of the yet-to-be-fully-explained tax cuts?
Well, as they say, they can pack up their troubles in an old kit bag and go see a movie: preferably one produced by Secretary Mnuchin’s Hollywood buddies.
Maybe a dystopic drama along the lines of Soylent Green?
Joel Sucher is a co-founder of Pacific Street Films (together with Steven Fischler) and has written for a number of platforms including American Banker, In These Times, HuffPost and Observer. com. He and Pacific Street Films co-founder, Steven Fischler, are working on a streaming series about their experiences at NYU Film School.