This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Who can keep up with the madness of our never-ending Trumpian media moment? Each day is a lesson in the bizarre, in ever-wilder comments, accusations, charges, and claims of every sort from or against The Donald and crew. Each day spotlights subjects you hardly knew were subjects until they burst onto cable news and individual screens nationwide. Did an American president really call the country's justice system "a joke and a laughingstock" (in the context of the possible sending of terrorist Sayfullo Saipov to Guantanamo) during a televised cabinet meeting? And that very afternoon, did his White House press secretary flatly deny he had ever said such a thing? Is a "seething" Donald Trump truly angry at his son-in-law Jared Kushner for his advice on special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation? Did Paul Manafort really use (launder?) $1.3 million, assumedly from Russian oligarchs, on clothes? Is special counsel Mueller about to be fired by the president? Had you ever even heard of the Diversity Visa Lottery program before Donald Trump pinned its existence on the Senate minority leader -- "a Chuck Schumer beauty" -- even though it was actually signed into law by President George H.W. Bush? Did the White House chief of staff, who adamantly refuses to apologize for an erroneous accusation against a Democratic congresswoman, actually call for "compromise" when it came to the years leading up to the Civil War?
I mean, in your wildest dreams could you make this stuff up? And worse yet, in the maelstrom of claims, tweets, wild statements, strange bits of information, and god knows what else, it would be so easy for what truly matters in our world to get lost in the shuffle. For instance, amid all Donald Trump's bluster and tweets, it's not hard to forget who he really is: our first elected billionaire president. (Nelson Rockefeller undoubtedly came closest, historically speaking, but he was only vice president and was in any case appointed, not elected.) Trump should be seen as the living, breathing result of an inequality gap that first began to widen almost four decades ago in the era of President Ronald Reagan and reached cataclysmic proportions in this century. It was, of course, the Supreme Court which, in 2010, released all the money that has flowed so steadily upwards into the political system big time with its Citizens United decision and so paved the way for the truly wealthy to organize and fund a genuine 1% politics in which a billionaire could finally become the people's candidate.
It's easy in the chaos of the moment -- every moment these days -- to forget that Donald Trump appointed the wealthiest cabinet in our history by a country mile and so prepared the way for the further promotion of a system in which the benefits of... well, you name it... will flow ever upwards ever more rapidly. Amid all the chaos and "fake news" of our moment, something profound is happening and, under the circumstances, it's easy enough to ignore. However chaotically, we're witnessing the creation of a new American system of injustice, a true government of the plutocrats. Fortunately, we still have TomDispatch regular Nomi Prins, author of All the Presidents' Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power, to remind us of this reality, as today when she focuses on Secretary of the Wealthy... oops, I mean Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin. Tom
Steven Mnuchin, Foreclosure King of America
Secretary of the Treasury for the .01%
By Nomi Prins
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin doesn't exactly come across as the guy you'd want in your corner in a playground tussle. In the Trump administration, he's been more like the kid trying to cop favor with the school bully. That, at least, is the role he seems to have taken in the Trump White House. When he isn't circling the Sunday shows stooging for the president, he regularly plays the willing fall guy for tax policies guaranteed to stoke further inequality in America and for legislation that will remove just about any consumer protections against Wall Street.
Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs partner, arrived in Washington with a distinct reputation. Back in 2009, he had corralled a bundle of rich financiers to take over California's IndyMac bank, shut down amid the 2008 foreclosure crisis by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Bought for $13.9 billion (but only $1.3 billion in actual cash), Mnuchin turned it into a genuine foreclosure machine, in the process sealing his own fate when it came to his future reputation. At the time, he didn't appear concerned about public approval. Something far more valuable was at stake: the $200 million that, according to Bloomberg News, he raked in personally, thanks to the deal.- Advertisement -
No such luck, of course, for the bank's ordinary borrowers. During Mnuchin's reign, IndyMac carried out more than 36,000 foreclosures, tossing former homeowners (including active duty military servicemen and women) onto the street without hesitation or pity by any means necessary. According to a memo obtained by investigative reporter David Dayen, OneWest, the new name that Mnuchin and his billionaire posse coined for Indybank, of which Mnuchin was now CEO and chairman, "rushed delinquent homeowners out of their homes by violating notice and waiting period statutes, illegally backdated key documents, and effectively gamed foreclosure auctions."
Now, Mnuchin remains bitter and frustrated that he can't kick the reputation he got in those days. As he told a House Financial Services Committee Congressional hearing this July, "I take great offense to anybody who calls me the foreclosure king." Such indignation would ring truer if, in May, one of Mnuchin's banking units, a company called Financial Freedom, hadn't agreed to pay a more than $89 million settlement to the government for taking unreasonable advantage of thousands of seniors through reverse mortgages which convert equity in a home into a loan. (A few months later, in August, a watchdog group, Campaign for Accountability, called upon the Justice Department to investigate Mnuchin for allegedly making false statements under oath to Congress about his actions at OneWest between 2009 and 2015.)
Like Donald Trump, Mnuchin is a man intent on making the rich richer and to hell with everyone else. Continually channeling Trump's ego, whatever his smoldering resentments may be, he soldiers on -- and in the context of the Trump White House successfully indeed. After all, this administration has lost 14 key people in less than a year, including an FBI director, a national security adviser, a White House chief of staff, and a White House communications director. Through it all, Mnuchin has remained in place, one of the relatively few members of The Donald's original team not related by blood or marriage who is seemingly thriving. (Admittedly, he and the president were linked in what CNN once called a "business capacity" even before he became Trump's campaign finance director in May 2016.)
Hamilton, Trump, and a Playbill for the Economy
There's a history of Treasury secretaries having a special rapport with presidents that snakes back to the founding of the Republic. Alexander Hamilton, the first of them, had the full confidence of the first president, George Washington. With such backing, he established federal taxes and came up with plans for real economic development. He understood federal taxes to be essential to building America. In contrast, Mnuchin thinks the stock market is the ultimate arbiter of economic health and appears to consider taxation without representation (by the wealthy) the order of the day.
Since Mnuchin bagged one of the most influential economic positions on the planet, he's been remarkably consistent on just one thing: making sure he lends a helping hand to the world of big finance, his former universe. He has, for instance, pushed hard for more bank deregulation by claiming that it will help the smaller banks. Don't believe it for a second. His disdain for reenacting the Glass-Steagall Act, which once made the merging of commercial and investment banking operations illegal and so curtailed the too-big-to-fail status of the largest banks, tells you all you need to know. It reflects his real thinking when it comes to banks and the stability of the economy. Emblematic of this has been the way he steered the Financial Stability Oversight Council that he chairs to give AIG, the insurance company at the core of the 2008 financial meltdown, a gateway back to prominence by removing its too-big-to-fail label.- Advertisement -
He's proven adept at blurring the lines between what effective banking regulation would actually involve and how he can wordsmith out of pushing for it. In May, testifying before the Senate Banking Committee, for example, he noted that "we do not support [the] separation of banks and investment banks." When Senator Elizabeth Warren pointed out that this was hardly the position Donald Trump and his team had taken during campaign 2016 (or of the Republican platform, which had explicitly called for the reinstitution of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933), he promptly waffled: "We, during the campaign... specifically came out and said we do support a twenty-first-century Glass-Steagall... That means there are aspects of it that we think may make sense, but we never said before that we supported a full separation of banks and investment banks."
In June, when pressed on the matter by Senator Bernie Sanders, the Treasury secretary argued that Trump was not responsible for the language in the Republican party platform and remained opposed to breaking up the big banks. He added, "We think that that would hurt the economy, that would ruin liquidity in the market. What we are focused on is safe and prudent regulation for the large banks so we don't have taxpayer risk."
In other words, this is a man who has a real sense of the opportunity that's embedded in this moment -- for the large banks and their CEOs to make a bundle of money -- but no appropriate sense of the risks involved or fear for a future in which he and his president might find themselves bailing out such banks, 2008-style.