Cabinet secretaries don’t normally feel the need to put out statements explaining why they haven’t quit their jobs in disgust.
But the Trump administration is not normal. And so it is that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin put out a statement Saturday night, explaining why he’s sticking around in the Trump administration.
Mnuchin responded to an open letter published Friday, signed by more than 300 people who graduated from Yale, alongside Mnuchin, in 1985. “We believe it is your moral obligation to resign your post as Secretary of the Treasury, effective immediately,” the letter reads.
Liberals, moderates, and anti-Trump conservatives have been calling for people of conscience to resign from the Trump administration since Donald Trump was inaugurated on January 20. And each of the president’s most shocking and worrisome moves — firing FBI Director James Comey, banning trans service members from the military on Twitter against the advice of Defense Secretary James Mattis — has inspired a new round of calls for administration officials to stop giving cover to an impulsive and divisive president.
But President Trump’s responses to last week’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, in which Trump blamed “both sides” for the violence that killed Heather Heyer and called some of the rallygoers “very fine people,” has put another wave of pressure on officials to resign — especially Jewish officials like Mnuchin.
“We call upon you, as our friend, our classmate, and as a fellow American, to resign in protest of President Trump’s support of Nazism and white supremacy,” says the Yale letter. “We know you are better than this, and we are counting on you to do the right thing.”
Mnuchin’s response, which was sent out Saturday evening, lists the phone number for the Department of Treasury’s Office of Public Affairs as the “media contact,” but isn’t yet on the Treasury website. In the letter, Mnuchin stresses that President Trump really does hate neo-Nazis, and urges his former classmates and other critics not to lose sight of the president’s policy agenda over “culture war” issues (connecting the debate over renaming a Yale residential college formerly named for John C. Calhoun to the debate over Confederate memorials that ostensibly prompted the rally in Charlottesville).
Mnuchin’s statement itself isn’t nearly as notable as the fact that he felt the need to make it at all — he could easily have ignored the Yale classmates’ letter, just as other members of the Trump administration have ignored all previous calls for them to resign. But it appears that Mnuchin feels that his college classmates deserve a response — either because he knew and liked them as a younger man, or simply because he respects his fellow Yale alumni more than he respects Joe Public.
Either way, it’s a weird spectacle: an argument about whether to resign from the Cabinet of a president who positions himself as an anti-elite “outsider,” couched in the shared values of a single Ivy League university. (Full disclosure: the author of this article also went to Yale, though she graduated substantially later than 1985.)
The weirdness is compounded by Mnuchin’s insistence that he’s there to enforce President Trump’s policy agenda — to “simplify regulations, reform taxes, and generate millions of jobs through higher growth” — and that culture-war controversies are just an attempt to “distract the administration and the American people” from that agenda.
If President Trump is more interested in tax reform than he is in stirring up culture-war spats, he certainly hasn’t shown it in his public behavior. It seems pretty clear, in fact, that President Trump is less interested in a traditional Republican deregulatory agenda than he is in filling his campaign promises (like “building the wall,”) and that he’s less interested in any policy than he is in being the center of attention.
Despite this, however, a lot of pro-business Republicans continue to stick with Trump because they see him as the best shot to pass tax reform and cut federal regulations. Mnuchin, at least as he portrays himself to his classmates, is one of them. And while he doesn’t assume that his fellow Yale graduates will necessarily agree with Trump’s economic agenda, he seems to trust they’ll understand that it’s obviously more important than the president’s attempts to escalate racial animosities.