In snowcapped Davos last month, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin casually diverged from two decades of U.S. fiscal orthodoxy and accidentally tipped the value of the dollar further into a spiral with a single sentence. “Obviously,” he said, “a weaker dollar is good for us as it relates to trade and opportunities.”
“It was distressing to me because it just shows a disregard for basic competence in governing,” said a former top economic official in Democratic administrations — referring specifically to the Treasury secretary’s not seeming to know he had any obligations beyond giving voice to his own personal preferences about things like, oh, say, monetary policy. That a weak dollar was not, actually, the policy goal of the government made it an obvious gaffe. But it was also a phenomenon now common in the Trump era: a political blunder in which the blunderer seems to not know or care how much destruction he has just wrought. The comment ricocheted throughout the world, sinking the dollar to a three-year low in currency markets and prompting clarifications from the president (himself no stranger to this kind of Alfred E. Neuman–in–a–china–shop mess and someone who had, for a while, cheered the possibility of a weak dollar). For his part, the Treasury secretary seemed just annoyed. “I think I’ve actually been quite consistent on my comment on the dollar,” he said on CNBC. “In the short term, where the dollar is, is not a concern of mine, okay?”
To this point, Mnuchin, a Hollywood producer, has been just one part of an ensemble of colorful characters starring in the Trump reality show (at least four have starred in actual reality shows). But judged against his colleagues in this administration of outsiders and should-you-really-be-heres — Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross reportedly falls asleep in meetings; Rick Perry was reported to think his Energy Department was devoted to the issue of oil, rather than the nuclear arsenal — Mnuchin’s facility for gaffes and optical blunders has proved exceptional. In this, he has had extraordinary help from his wife, Louise Linton, an actress, often said to have been raised in a haunted Scottish castle, who collects small, handicapped rescue dogs. Although it would be more black comedy than rom-com, The Misadventures of Steven Mnuchin and Louise Linton could be adapted into a critically panned blockbuster produced by Mnuchin and starring Linton as herself (she also directs). Even to people who couldn’t tell you what a Treasury secretary is supposed to do, the couple have become identifiable as the obtuse avatars of the new kleptocracy of Donald Trump’s America: the First Couple of C.R.E.A.M.
“I guess I should take that as a compliment, that I look like a villain in a great, successful James Bond movie,” Mnuchin said once — which may explain why he and his wife have given us a year of Davoses, i.e., episodes such of opulent cluelessness that they can be graded on the hurricane scale. (Linton herself couldn’t make it to the global-elite powwow this year; she was “filming a romantic comedy in L.A.,” her publicist, who has represented some Real Housewives, Paris Hilton, and Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian, told the Daily Mail.)
Davos was a Category-3 Davos; when, in March 2017, Mnuchin promoted The LEGO Batman Movie, which he had executive-produced, apparently violating a federal ethics rule prohibiting the use of public office for personal gain, it was a Category 1. When Linton posted a photo of herself and her husband emerging from a government jet on Instagram and captioned it “Great #daytrip to #Kentucky! #nicest #people #beautiful #countryside #rolandmouret pants #tomford sunnies, #hermesscarf #valentinorockstudheels #valentino #usa,” it was a mere gale, but it was upgraded to a Category 4 when she responded to criticism in the comments: “Aw!!! Did you think this was a personal trip?! Adorable! Do you think the US govt paid for our honeymoon or personal travel?! Lololol. Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes OR in self sacrifice to your country?” Then it teetered on the brink of a Category 5 when it became known that the #daytrip was at least in part to view the solar eclipse.
Did it matter if it was true that they had watched the event from atop a pile of gold bricks at Fort Knox? By then, we already knew that however capacious our imagination for spectacles of cartoonishly flaunted wealth, the Mnuchins could exceed them.
“You should know that I spent 30 years making sure I’d be kept out of the paper,” Robert Mnuchin, Steven’s father and a former Goldman banker turned art gallerist, tells me. “I figured, whatever reputation I had, I had, and if I had this interview, I wasn’t going to be any better off when I came out of it. So why do it? No offense.”
His son has not been as self-aware. Prior to his job at Treasury, which literally prints his name on money, Mnuchin fils had also been a Goldman executive, then the owner of a hedge fund, then the CEO of a California bank that foreclosed on tens of thousands of homeowners before it was sold for an estimated $3.4 billion, and a movie producer with his hand in all sorts of profitable projects, like Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman. His political involvement was limited to writing checks, mostly to Democratic politicians. But then came the Trump campaign, meaning he, like Steve Bannon and the president, followed the same path from money to entertainment to Washington.
Not that he really fits in there; he’s never really fit in anywhere. A former Yale classmate told Bloomberg that he once told Mnuchin, who drove a Porsche and was a member of Skull and Bones, “You put the douche in fiduciary.” Finance colleagues don’t describe him as having been an obvious rising star or a douche by Goldman standards, using instead words like mediocre and odd duck. People in Hollywood seem to barely remember him; his role in the housing crisis could have made him a famous American creep, but somehow he left no impression. A former senior White House official says, “He’s an odd guy,” difficult to relate to. But his instinct for friendlessness did make him one very important friend. “He’s a lot like Trump,” says one financial executive who knows them both. When Mnuchin met Linton, the two began sharing a personal trainer, TC Franklin, an aspiring actor and former journalist in L.A. He says Mnuchin “might break a sweat once a month” and didn’t like to be pushed too hard. “He was more light weights. Louise was, ‘Let’s get ballistic! Let’s crush my abs! Let’s make my legs shake, burn, I just wanna almost throw up!’ ”
Bound by an oval-shaped-diamond ring the size of a radish since their 2015 engagement, the couple was married on June 24 in Washington. Vice-President Mike Pence officiated. In photos from the day, Linton has the pale appearance of a Precious Moments doll that’s emerged from a juice cleanse, a creature even less natural in D.C. than Melania Trump, who looks like a Hill staffer beside her.
According to her self-spun folklore, Linton, who is 37, was born in Edinburgh and, after boarding school, departed for Zambia, where she spent six months volunteering, a dramatic experience that she would later document in a factually condemned memoir, In Congo’s Shadow: One Girl’s Perilous Journey to the Heart of Africa, which she called “a coming-of-age story” … “of lost innocence,” about a “skinny white Muzungu with long angel hair” who “was an anomaly in darkest Africa.” (The book was self-published; copies are now seemingly impossible to find.) According to her biography, she has degrees in journalism and law from Pepperdine and the University of West Los Angeles, but those who knew her in L.A. say that what brought her there was a desire to be famous. Her family wealth had the effect of making her seem famous already: She accumulated an entourage of agents, managers, and talent coaches and showed up to a series of cheesy red-carpet events, like one promoting Grey Goose vodka at which she raised a murky cocktail and posed. It was
a far cry from the setting she’d find herself in a few years later: looking like a combination of Barbie and Jackie O., posing in the Oval Office with her Cabinet-secretary husband and the president. Says Travis Zariwny, a director and friend: “She loves character development. Which is fun.”
*This article appears in the February 5, 2018, issue of New York Magazine.