By Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Binyamin Appelbaum and Maggie Haberman
Steven T. Mnuchin, a financier with deep roots on Wall Street and in Hollywood but no government experience, is expected to be named Donald J. Trump’s treasury secretary as soon as today, people close to the transition say.
Trump also has chosen Elaine Chao, a veteran of past Republican administrations who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as his transportation secretary. She will be given the responsibility of steering the infrastructure initiative through a divided Congress and the federal bureaucracy.
Mnuchin, 53, was national finance chairman for Trump’s campaign, and his selection would elevate a wealthy loyalist to a pivotal economic post. He began his career at Goldman Sachs, where he became a partner, before creating his own hedge fund, moving to the West Coast and entering the first rank of movie financiers by bankrolling hits such as the “X-Men” franchise and “Avatar.”
If confirmed, Mnuchin would play a critical role in carrying out Trump’s promised economic policy changes, including the enactment of a large package of tax cuts, sweeping changes to foreign trade agreements and the fulfillment of a huge new infrastructure spending program. He could also help lead any efforts to roll back President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and the administration’s opening to Cuba by reimposing sanctions on Tehran and Havana.
In addition, Trump announced that he would nominate Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., a physician who has been a fierce opponent of Obama’s Affordable Care Act on health insurance, as his secretary of health and human services – tasked with leading his efforts to dismantle the measure.
Mnuchin’s selection fits uneasily with much of Trump’s campaign attacks on the financial industry. Trump, in a campaign ad intended as a closing argument, portrayed the chief executive of Goldman Sachs as the personification of a global elite that the ad said had “robbed our working class.”
The choice of Mnuchin came as Trump moved Tuesday to fill the ranks of his domestic policy team with seasoned Washington insiders to help smooth the way in Congress for two of his marquee campaign promises: the repeal of the health care law and the large stimulus package to repair infrastructure, which could reach $1 trillion.
The moves suggested that Trump was seeking experienced policymakers who have deep relationships in Washington to shepherd his most sweeping pledges.
In longtime Washington insider Chao, 63, Trump was turning to a former labor secretary under President George W. Bush. She also served as deputy transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush.
Her experience on Capitol Hill will be needed to take on what will have to be a bipartisan infrastructure effort in Congress. Aides said Trump’s choice of Price, 62, underscored Trump’s commitment to move swiftly to roll back the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement, and replace it.
Chao, who was born in Taiwan, brings a third woman to Cabinet-level positions in a Trump administration and an additional degree of diversity to the president-elect’s team, so far filled largely with conservative white men who have scoffed at political convention.
Democrats said they were cautiously optimistic about working with Chao to forge a bipartisan infrastructure deal.
“I hope Secretary Chao shares that ambitious goal and is willing to work with Democrats to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and create millions of good-paying jobs along the way,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who will be Senate minority leader in the next Congress.
But Chao was quickly criticized by progressive groups who said she was emblematic of the very corporate-driven political establishment that Trump had promised to dismantle. Some policy analysts argued that she had inadequately protected employee rights, and the Center for American Progress called her selection an “ominous sign for workers.”
The selection of Price, who has served in Congress since 2005, revealed deeper partisan divisions. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, described Price as “a brilliant choice,” adding: “The Department of Health and Human Services will have a lot on its plate next year. I’m glad that we’ll have a doctor who knows health care inside and out leading the way.”
But Democrats and their allies voiced alarm bordering on panic in some cases.
Richard J. Fiesta, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, which represents many retired union members, said he was “horrified” by Price’s selection.
Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, a research and advocacy group, said the selection of Price was “very disappointing, but not a surprise.”
“If his record and principles are any guide, and if he could implement those positions as secretary of health and human services,” she said, “he would have a devastating impact on women’s health.”
Greenberger said the 2010 passage of Obamacare had advanced women’s health care in several ways. It prohibits insurers from charging women more than men, and lists maternity and newborn care as “essential health benefits” that must be covered by health insurance plans. Moreover, the law requires coverage of certain preventive services without copayments and deductibles, and rules issued by the Obama administration say those services must include contraceptives.
In Mnuchin, Trump has an ally whose nomination is expected to be well received on Wall Street, a number of traders and bankers contacted on Tuesday said.
Since Trump’s victory, U.S. equity markets have hit record highs, with financial institutions leading the way. Having a treasury secretary with broad experience as a financier is likely to sustain the view that a Trump administration will look favorably upon Wall Street, not least in terms of pulling back some of the regulations put in place by Obama.
Mnuchin, who would be the third Goldman Sachs alumnus to serve as treasury secretary, drew swift condemnation from progressive groups who said he had cashed in on the country’s financial collapse.
“He purchased a bailed-out bank for pennies on the dollar and then aggressively foreclosed on tens of thousands of families,” Jon Green, a spokesman for Americans for Financial Reform, said in a statement. “Anyone concerned about Wall Street billionaires rigging the economy should be terrified by the prospect of a Treasury Secretary Mnuchin.”
The group was apparently referring to Mnuchin’s role in 2009 in a group that bought the failed California mortgage lender IndyMac from the government. He became the chairman of the company, renamed OneWest, which was ultimately sold to CIT, the nation’s largest small-business lender, in 2015 for more than twice the price the group had paid.
During Mnuchin’s tenure, OneWest faced allegations that it had foreclosed improperly on some borrowers. Fair-housing groups also filed a complaint with the federal government, claiming that OneWest was not meeting its legal obligation to make loans in minority neighborhoods.
Mnuchin was the latest in a string of wealthy donors whom Trump has picked for top posts in his Cabinet, including Wilbur L. Ross Jr., 79, the billionaire investor he is said to have chosen as his commerce secretary; Todd Ricketts, an owner of the Chicago Cubs, who is expected to be the deputy commerce secretary; and Betsy DeVos, a school choice activist and Republican fundraiser, who he announced would be his education secretary.
Mnuchin, who was plucked from relative obscurity by Trump to lead his campaign fundraising, has conducted past business deals with the president-elect – but not always under the best of circumstances. Mnuchin’s hedge fund, Dune Capital Management, helped finance construction of a Trump project in Chicago. In 2008, Trump sued Dune and other lenders to extend the loan terms. The parties ultimately settled.
The selections Tuesday came as Trump huddled with advisers and potential Cabinet officials in Trump Tower in Manhattan, stoking a remarkably public debate among aides and allies over critical members of his national security team. Among the issues was whether he should nominate Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts and 2012 GOP presidential nominee who had been a Trump nemesis during the campaign, as secretary of state.