Mnuchin’s Recruiting Tool: Titles That Don’t Need Senate Confirmation

May 23, 2017, 12:38 PM EDT May 23, 2017, 4:00 PM EDT
  • Treasury relying on four ‘counselors’ to advise secretary
  • Goldman’s Donovan, nominee for No. 2 job, dropped out Friday

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is trying to fill a leadership vacuum in his department by increasingly recruiting financial industry executives for senior positions that come with a perk: a title that doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

Mnuchin has so far hired four people as top aides with the title “counselor,” including Craig Phillips, an ex-BlackRock Inc. executive and Hillary Clinton fundraiser. The Senate won’t vote on any of them, even though Mnuchin’s own party is in charge.

The hiring tactic is driven to some degree by necessity. The Goldman Sachs Group Inc. banker Mnuchin wanted as his deputy, Jim Donovan, pulled out on Friday, shortly before his Senate confirmation hearing was to be scheduled. Donovan said his withdrawal stemmed from a family matter.

Between a personnel shortage at the Treasury and a political crisis at the White House, where a special prosecutor is investigating Russia’s meddling with U.S. elections, Mnuchin faces difficulty fulfilling President Donald Trump’s ambitious economic agenda. The Treasury chief’s goals include the biggest tax overhaul since the Reagan administration, the unwinding of financial regulations and revamping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — all with the objective of doubling the pace of U.S. growth.

Mnuchin was already leaning on Donovan to help manage the department, even though he had not officially left Goldman Sachs. One of Donovan’s tasks was to recruit people for other senior positions in the agency.

Lew, Paulson

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have used counselor positions to bring on top aides without the Senate’s scrutiny. Former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, for example, gave the title to Antonio Weiss, a Lazard Ltd. banker who withdrew his nomination to be an undersecretary after Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about his Wall Street ties. Henry Paulson, who ran the department under President George W. Bush, hired senior advisers from Goldman Sachs, where he had been CEO, without seeking Senate confirmation.

But Paulson and Lew both faced a Senate that was controlled by the opposition party during much of their terms. Mnuchin is employing the same end-run despite Republicans controlling all branches of the government.

Other counselors Mnuchin has hired include: Shannon McGahn, the wife of White House counsel Don McGahn, who is advising Mnuchin on legislative and public affairs; Dan Kowalski, who is working on budget issues, the debt limit and infrastructure finance; and Justin Muzinich, a former Morgan Stanley banker working on major policy initiatives including a tax overhaul.

Dodd-Frank Rollback

Phillips oversees Treasury’s domestic finance office, which supervises issues including debt management, tax policy and housing finance. The former member of Clinton’s national finance committee is also leading a review of how the Trump administration can roll back Obama-era financial regulations.

His presence at the Treasury in a role that is seen gaining influence with Donovan’s departure is agitating to many Republicans. Because of his Democratic ties, he’s unlikely to be nominated for a job that requires Senate approval.

The department has 26 positions that require Senate confirmation. Seventeen of those are either filled or have nominees. The rest may remain empty, a Treasury spokesman said, citing Trump’s plans to trim government spending.

Mnuchin has a deep bench of candidates for jobs he wants to fill, which include deputy secretary and a confirmed leader for the domestic finance office, and is confident that he can accomplish the economic goals set out by Trump, according to the spokesman.

Adding to Mnuchin’s staffing troubles is the investigation into Russian government contacts with the Trump campaign. Several Senate Democrats have said they’ll oppose Sigal Mandelker, his choice to lead the Treasury unit that fights money laundering, oversees sanctions policy and houses a financial crimes enforcement office, until the department has fulfilled the Senate Intelligence Committee’s request for documents related to the Russia investigation.

Mnuchin has demonstrated a willingness to be creative as he fills important jobs, in part because a personnel logjam at the White House has slowed his appointments. Earlier this month, he signed on banking lawyer Keith Noreika as a temporary government employee and then made him the acting comptroller of the currency. Noreika is supposed to work only 130 days out of 365, but doesn’t have to follow the same ethics rules as full-time officials.