How a Hillary Superfan Ended Up Inside Trump’s Treasury
As a member of Hillary Clinton’s national finance committee, a distinction reserved for those who raised at least $100,000 for her presidential bid, Craig Phillips qualified as a Hillary superfan, or a “Hillblazer” in the words of the campaign. A former BlackRock Inc. executive, Phillips had told friends and colleagues he hoped to get a political appointment at the Treasury Department, parlaying his big donations into a big job in Washington. His plan half-worked. Phillips is indeed working at the Treasury; it’s just that his boss is Donald Trump, and his job is totally different from what it would’ve been under Clinton.
Phillips is leading Treasury’s review of how to roll back financial regulations, a policy move opposed by Democrats. He’s also one of a handful of people hired by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in the first two months of the Trump administration. While Phillips’s views on the rules that were piled on the banking industry after the 2008 financial crisis aren’t clear (he wouldn’t comment for this story), conservatives inside and outside the government are surprised he got the job, given his political leanings. A Treasury spokesman says Mnuchin is confident Phillips supports the administration’s economic policy goals, adding that he “is a key member of our team.”
Phillips, who spent his 40-year career in finance, including stints at Credit Suisse First Boston and Morgan Stanley, announced last September he was leaving BlackRock. At the time, few thought Trump had a chance. Yet after the election, as Democrats grappled with their diminished prospects, Phillips saw he still had an opportunity to work in government, thanks to his almost 25-year friendship with Mnuchin. The two had crossed paths because of their work in housing finance, a subsection of Wall Street where major players tend to know one another.
Mnuchin fought to bring on Phillips, 62, because of his deep experience in the markets, people familiar with the hiring say. Although some White House and Treasury aides opposed him, they were ultimately overruled. Phillips was among the first people to start working at Treasury as part of the administration’s “beachhead team” of appointees who took the reins as soon as Trump was sworn in.
Phillips has been in on most discussions of the major issues confronting the department, including a tax overhaul, the debt limit, and Trump’s executive order in February directing the department to get serious about cutting financial regulations. Phillips is now one of Treasury’s most senior officials, given how slow the White House has been to nominate people for top positions, including undersecretary and assistant secretary for domestic finance.
Part of the delay, people involved in the nomination process have said, was because of a desire by the White House to make sure Mnuchin’s preferred candidates hadn’t publicly opposed or criticized Trump. Despite his Clinton connections, Phillips wasn’t subjected to as intense White House scrutiny, since his job as a counselor to Mnuchin doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Even so, his political donations were hardly a secret. Federal Election Commission records show he donated $136,100 to Clinton in October. That same month he gave $33,400 each to the Democrats’ Senate and House campaign committees. One source notes Phillips later gave a big check to Trump’s inaugural committee.
Ian Katz, a policy analyst who watches the Treasury for Capital Alpha Partners LLC in Washington, says Phillips’s support for Democrats might not be as strange as it seems. “In finance there’s often not a huge difference between Republicans and Democrats, they’re all for free markets,” says Katz. “The fact that he worked at BlackRock is probably more relevant than his political affiliation.”
The Treasury has until early June to report back to Trump on regulations. Many in the banking industry see this effort as the first and perhaps best chance to scrap some of the more onerous requirements imposed by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. The bulk of Phillips’s review kicked off in March with a series of group meetings. Big banks such as JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc. have already been in, as have asset managers such as BlackRock and Fidelity Investments and consumer advocates. Held in Treasury’s ornate Cash Room, the events weren’t open to the public. Phillips plans to hold 16 sessions; among others, he’s also invited community banks and credit unions. People familiar with the meetings said firms were told to bring ideas for changes they want made to financial rules, along with solutions that preferably don’t involve passing legislation.
At these get-togethers, the banking industry is looking for any kernel of insight into the White House’s thinking on financial regulations. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly blasted big banks, yet he’s filled his administration with Goldman Sachs Group Inc. partners, including Mnuchin.
First, though, Wall Street must figure out where Phillips stands. Those who see his ties to Clinton as evidence he’ll be a counterweight to the administration’s push to eliminate rules may be disappointed. “Financial regulation is not inherently political,” says Hester Peirce, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “It’s about trying to get the financial system to work well so the rest of the economy works well.”
The bottom line: Despite donating $136,100 to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Craig Phillips is a top official in Trump’s Treasury Department.