Trump’s Top Fundraiser Eyes the Deal of a Lifetime
Until one Tuesday in April, Steven Mnuchin’s life had been ordered meticulously. The son of a Goldman Sachs partner, he was publisher of the Yale Daily News, was tapped into Skull and Bones, made partner at Goldman, ran a hedge fund, and invested in Hollywood blockbusters. One thing followed another. Then, on April 19, the day of the New York primary, Mnuchin’s life veered.
He was supposed to be at a dinner downtown, but after receiving a last-minute invitation to Donald Trump’s victory speech, he stopped by Trump Tower. Mnuchin—53, stiff bearing, stylish black glasses—was milling around, swallowing some Trump-brand wine, when the candidate swanned into view. The two had worked together on building deals years earlier. The billionaire beckoned his friend to follow him onto an escalator, and suddenly they were both onstage, Trump jabbing at the roaring crowd and bragging that the group assembled behind him included some of the world’s great businessmen. Mnuchin beamed. From where he stood, Trump’s iridescent hairdo was almost close enough to pat. He spotted a monitor, glimpsed his own face, and realized he was on TV.
The next morning, Trump called and asked Mnuchin to be his national finance chairman. He accepted. This precise man was suddenly in charge of funding a reality TV star whose populist pandemonium was conquering the Republican Party. It didn’t make sense. Mnuchin had spent his career atop the elite institutions Trump voters despise, and he lacked any political experience. The closest he’d come was making campaign contributions, and those had been mostly to Democrats. The task seemed impossible. With only a few months left before the election, Mnuchin was going up against a Hillary Clinton money machine that was out-organizing and outraising him. Friends who’ve known him for years found it baffling.
“What the heck?” says Ben Bram, who lived with Mnuchin at Yale and joined him at Goldman Sachs.
“I can’t figure it out,” says Harry Macklowe, a skyscraper developer who’s worked with Mnuchin. “I cannot figure it out. I cannot.”
Brett Ratner, the director and Mnuchin’s partner in Hollywood, was unaware he knew Trump. “I swear,” he says. “I’ve never had a conversation about it.”
One theory bouncing between Manhattan and Beverly Hills holds that an investor with so much Wall Street blood in his veins spotted the trade of a lifetime. In exchange for a few months of unpaid work, Mnuchin gets a shot at joining President Trump’s cabinet. Goldman partners have wealth, and movie producers befriend stars, but the secretary of the Treasury gets his signature stamped on cash.
Trump, who declined to be interviewed, has told donors Mnuchin would be good at the job of stewarding the world’s biggest economy. Mnuchin himself is circumspect, and if you ask him about his motivations—getting him on the phone between $50,000-a-plate dinners, or in his Manhattan office—he sounds less like a political obsessive than an investor closing a deal he can’t quite discuss. “This was a unique moment in time where there’s a unique role for me,” he says. “It’s a unique moment in time,” he says again. “A unique opportunity to help.” But he will allow that the idea of a top Washington job appeals to him. “Yeah, it does,” he says. And for everyone on both coasts who still can’t believe Mnuchin has tied himself to Trump, he has an answer: “Nobody’s going to be like, ‘Well, why did he do this?’ if I end up in the administration.”
When Mnuchin signed on in April as Trump’s national finance chairman, he didn’t have much of a choice about what to do.
Trump’s fundraising operation barely existed, aside from “Make America Great Again” hats for sale and a donation button on the campaign website. By contrast, Mitt Romney started laying the groundwork for his 2012 fundraising in 2009. And Clinton had more than a year’s head start, not to mention the decades her family had been wooing donors. Trump had gotten through the primaries spending $50 million of his own fortune, branding his rivals puppets of their patrons. There was no network of Trump donors, no staff to build one, and no digital team pulling in money online. Mnuchin didn’t have them either. But the Republican National Committee did.
Mnuchin helped work out a deal with the party for Trump to essentially outsource much of the work of raising money, and in return the RNC would get to pocket millions collected in his name. It was a classic Trump move. After his companies went bankrupt following debt-fueled bonanzas in the 1980s, Trump became a maestro of sticking his brand on someone else’s products—condos, cuff links, colognes. Mnuchin arranged for him to do the same thing on a presidential scale.
Most White House candidates strike agreements like this, but none have relied so deeply on them. Trump is using the RNC’s direct-mail experts to bring in bite-size donations and a group of party bigwigs to dial up rich friends and fill seats at pricey fundraisers. That’s especially important because Trump has alienated some of the most generous GOP donors with promises to ban Muslim immigration and scrap trade deals. The downside is that he’s giving up some control.
Mnuchin’s counterpart at the RNC is Lew Eisenberg, his father’s old partner at Goldman Sachs. “I knew him when he was 10,” Eisenberg says. “He was a cute 10-year-old kid.” Mnuchin began his Trump job by telling people he could raise $1 billion or more. The goal is now closer to half that, Mnuchin says.
Up against a Clinton fundraising arm with more than three dozen staffers, Mnuchin has three. Ever a details person, he scrutinized the wardrobe of his deputy, Eli Miller. “You’re 80 percent perfect,” Mnuchin told him. The other 20 percent concerned Miller’s shoes—Gucci loafers that Mnuchin deemed too unserious for the job of extracting money from conservatives. Miller got dark new lace-ups.
Mnuchin was born into a level of privilege that makes Trump’s deluxe childhood look ordinary. His grandfather, an attorney, co-founded a yacht club in the Hamptons, and his father, Robert, was a top Goldman Sachs trader who later became an art dealer. Mnuchin followed his father to Yale, where he lived in the old Taft Hotel with Eddie Lampert, now a billionaire investor, and Sam Chalabi, whose uncle, Ahmad, later ran the Iraqi National Congress.
Mnuchin drove a Porsche in college, two friends say. His classmate Michael Danziger, an heir to a pharmaceutical fortune, says he was also tapped to join Skull and Bones but turned down the secret society. “You’re going to live to regret this,” he recalls Mnuchin saying. Danziger, who knew his classmate was headed into finance, says he answered: “You put the ‘douche’ in fiduciary.” Mnuchin says the exchange never happened.
He got summer jobs at Salomon Brothers before graduating from Yale in 1985. His bosses at the bank asked why they should bring him on. “You’re just going to end up going to Goldman Sachs,” Mnuchin remembers one telling him. “I said, ‘No, I really don’t want to go to Goldman Sachs. I’m going to go do something different.’” He went to Goldman Sachs.
A cigar-smoking trader from Salomon, Michael Mortara, came to Goldman, too. He became Mnuchin’s mentor, showing him how the firm could profit from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s by buying the assets of capsized banks on the cheap. Mnuchin left Goldman at the end of 2002 to work for two hedge funds, taking top jobs with his friend Lampert and George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist and Clinton donor. In 2004, Mnuchin founded his own hedge fund, Dune Capital Management, named for a spot near his house in the Hamptons, and got hundreds of millions of dollars from Soros. The firm invested in at least two Trump projects, a branded condo in Waikiki and a Chicago skyscraper. Trump sued Dune and other lenders over the Chicago deal before settling.
Mnuchin’s bland demeanor and world-on-a-platter upbringing belie an intense competitiveness. Like his father before him, he branched out into the arts. In 2006 he bought a DreamWorks film library in partnership with Soros, and he financed movies at 20th Century Fox, one of which, Avatar, became the highest-grossing picture of all time. Mnuchin, who’s been married twice, is now engaged to Louise Linton, a Scottish-born actress.
Economic apocalypse brought Mnuchin back to banking. In the summer of 2008 he was in his office in New York when he saw a TV news shot of customers lined up outside a branch of IndyMac, a California bank, trying to pull out their money. Recalling the lessons of the savings and loan crisis, he told a colleague: “This bank is going to end up failing, and we need to figure out how to buy it. … I’ve seen this game before.”
The bank collapsed on July 11, followed that autumn by the near destruction of the entire financial system. At one of the murkiest moments of the crisis, Mnuchin gathered some billionaire allies, including Soros and hedge fund manager John Paulson, and assembled a $1.6 billion bid to buy IndyMac. Mnuchin got an agreement that guaranteed the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. would absorb almost all the loan losses after a certain threshold. He renamed the bank OneWest. Within a year, it was profitable. In October 2011 about 100 protesters marched on his Los Angeles mansion, angry about foreclosures. “Steve Mnuchin,” one sign read, “Stop taking our homes.” He and his partners sold the bank in August 2015 for $3.4 billion.
In July, Trump tweeted an image of Clinton, a pile of cash, and a six-pointed star—a graphic that was previously posted on an anti-Semitic website. At some point on the job, Mnuchin got a call from a Holocaust survivor he knows. It went to voicemail, where the man told him how upset he is that Mnuchin supports Trump. He called the survivor back to say he respectfully disagreed.
Richard LeFrak, a billionaire developer who’s friendly with Mnuchin and has known Trump for about half a century, says he isn’t sure if the two even have the same ideology. But he sees a through line in Mnuchin’s journey from Wall Street to Hollywood to bank ownership to politics. “He’s a guy that can recognize an opportunity and adapt to it,” he says. “He’s able to switch into different things.”
Here’s how someone who grew up around Goldman Sachs traders and saw two of his colleagues become Treasury secretary might think about working for the Republican nominee: Even though Clinton has surged ahead in polls, the betting markets give Trump as much as a 28 percent chance of winning. Those are long odds in politics but not too shabby on Wall Street, and if his man makes it, Mnuchin could nab something priceless. All it costs him is a few months and some behind-the-back talk from friends who think he’s selling out to a demagogue.
Mnuchin knows how to find underpriced investments. Jonathan Sobel, who sat next to him at Goldman Sachs and is his neighbor in a regal Upper East Side co-op, points out that if someone like Mnuchin threw money to Clinton, as he did the last time she ran, he wouldn’t be able to expect much in return. “If you want to support Hillary and you haven’t been doing it for 15 to 25 years, probably dating back to Bill, you may be too late. In fact, at this point you are too late,” Sobel says. “Trump as a candidate didn’t exist two years ago. He doesn’t have the legacy organization that you had to endure and claw your way through. There’s no political machine.”
Mnuchin says the thousands of dollars he’s donated to Democrats, including Clinton and Barack Obama, were mostly favors for friends who were fundraisers. He says he supports low taxes, fewer regulations, and trade deals that are fair to the U.S. If he wants to position himself to head Trump’s Treasury Department, he can hardly do better than the role he’s carving out on the campaign’s economic advisory team. It contains three Stevens and two Stephens—a near majority when the group had 13 members. Mnuchin has distinguished himself by leading policy phone calls, where he strikes colleagues as someone with Trump’s ear.
Day to day, Mnuchin is less rainmaker than troubleshooter. He eyeballs fundraising e-mails, vendor contracts, parking arrangements, and the timing of courses at dinners. Aides open the mail at Trump Tower using a three-step procedure Mnuchin helped design: Envelopes with money are separated from those without, donations are processed, and then the empties are checked again.
Mnuchin has traveled with Trump to places you wouldn’t expect a fundraiser to visit, including Scotland, where almost no one can legally donate to a U.S. race. In June he watched the candidate from the wings of a news conference at Trump Turnberry, the billionaire’s golf resort there, when someone asked Trump if he minded the drudgery of soliciting donations.
“You know, I sit with 20 people, and we talk, and they all hand you checks. Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing!” Trump said. “In fact, Steve Mnuchin is here someplace. Steve? Are we doing well, Steve, huh?” Mnuchin prefers to be called Steven. “He’s one of the great financiers of the country, actually, and I chose him, and he wanted to do this, and the numbers are staggering.”
Things are more complicated than that. In June, Trump pulled in about $50 million—impressive, considering what Mnuchin had to work with at the start. In July the haul climbed to $80 million, with $64 million just from digital and direct mail. But he’s still behind Clinton, who raised about $90 million in July, and Romney grabbed more than $100 million during the same month four years ago. Trump raised less from big-ticket fundraisers in July than in June.
Party officials who see the billionaire showman as a lost cause could create an even bigger problem for him and his campaign finance chairman. Because of legal limits to how much individuals can give to a general election campaign, the Republican Party pockets all but the first $2,700 of Trump’s biggest contributions and spends much of the money on hiring staff in key states and getting out the vote. If Trump starts sinking, it could give up on the White House and shift its resources to defend congressional majorities. Eisenberg says that’s highly unlikely.
Mnuchin is calm on a Wednesday afternoon in August. He’s wearing a trim, blue Tom Ford suit and sipping San Pellegrino in a New York office near Trump Tower. The space is so new that there are hooks on the wall where paintings will go. Trump has just named the foul-mouthed provocateur Steve Bannon the chief executive officer of his campaign. Mnuchin dismisses the notion that this constitutes a shake-up; he has only pleasantries to share about Bannon, also a Goldman Sachs alumnus. Two days later, campaign Chairman Paul Manafort is gone. In another interview, Mnuchin stays guarded and on message.
He won’t go into details about how he met Trump. Nor what he thinks about the candidate insulting the parents of an American soldier killed in action. Mnuchin won’t say whether Goldman’s Hank Paulson was a good Treasury secretary. Asked about the Dodd-Frank financial regulation act, he says there are good and bad things about it, without elaborating. He agrees to tell a story about helping to set up a photograph showing Trump eating McDonald’s food on his jet, but first he huddles with his deputy in another room. “I’m never the main attraction, OK?” he says. “I’m the facilitator.”
On this unconventional campaign, Mnuchin has spent the month doing what he can to help his boss win, even if that means rearranging furniture at a country club fundraiser in Canton, Ohio. In the minutes before dinner started, while the candidate was working a photo line outside, Mnuchin surveyed the U-shaped table setup and decided Trump’s seat was too close to a wall. He convinced the country club staff that there was enough time to move the furniture about 2 feet.
Mnuchin is an oasis of blankness in a campaign of chaos and fervor. He must have known it was going to be ugly long before he found himself defending Trump to a Holocaust survivor. When confronted about his choices, Mnuchin tries to project amenability.
At an August Trump fundraiser in the Hamptons, he encountered Carl Icahn, the billionaire investor whom Trump floated as a Treasury pick last year. “I hear the rumor is you will be secretary of the Treasury,” Icahn told Mnuchin. “And I will support you 100 percent on that! Because there’s no f---ing way I would ever do that.”