Donald Trump’s choice for Treasury secretary, billionaire Steven Mnuchin, has at some point been part of nearly every elitist institution that Trump’s voters railed against in the 2016 election campaign.
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This first Jewish member of the president-elect’s cabinet is also the business partner of a close friend and confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Australian billionaire James Packer.
In 2013, Mnuchin merged his company Dune Entertainment with RatPac Entertainment, co-owned by Packer. The Netanyahu-Packer friendship has been in the headlines over the past week after Israel’s Channel 10 reported that the Israel Police were looking into reports that Packer gave members of Netanyahu’s family gifts and benefits.
According to the report, Netanyahu’s son Yair has ridden on Packer’s private jet and stayed in hotels at Packer’s expense. Channel 10 also reported that Packer owns a house in Caesarea next to the Netanyahus, and that the prime minister occasionally holds weekend meetings in Packer’s home. According to the report, when Packer’s ex-fiancé Mariah Carey performed in Israel last year, he gave a bundle of tickets to Netanyahu’s wife Sara.
Since the merger, RatPac-Dune Entertainment has produced more than 20 films including hits like “Gravity,” “The Lego Movie,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Before the joining of forces with Packer and RatPac’s co-owner Brett Ratner, Mnuchin’s Dune financed 20th Century Fox movies between 2005 and 2012, including one of the most successful films of all time, “Avatar.”
The Hollywood Reporter, which has detailed Mnuchin’s show-business connections, said he met Packer through Israeli-American mega-producer Arnon Milchan, another close Netanyahu friend whose Herzliya home the prime minister used for secret meetings last year.
Netanyahu reportedly met with opposition leader Isaac Herzog and former British prime minister and outgoing Mideast envoy Tony Blair, amid rumors that Milchan was attempting to broker an agreement between Herzog and Netanyahu for a unity government.
The road through Goldman Sachs
Mnuchin, 53, grew up in Manhattan society and has known Trump for 15 years. Since April he has served as the Trump campaign’s finance chairman. Mnuchin worked for nearly two decades at Goldman Sachs, the investment bank for which Trump took Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz to task for their connections.
Like Trump, Mnuchin is a second-generation member of New York’s power elite. His father Robert Mnuchin was also a Goldman Sachs partner before becoming a renowned dealer and gallery owner who at age 80 is still an influential figure in the art world.
Described by friends in a Wall Street Journal report as being “smart” and “nerdy,” Mnuchin graduated from Yale, where he published the prestigious student newspaper The Yale Daily News. He also belonged to the secret society Skull and Bones, whose members include former presidents as well as current Secretary of State John Kerry.
After leaving Goldman Sachs, Mnuchin worked at hedge funds including that of George Soros, the billionaire progressive philanthropist and donor Trump ads have attacked. Mnuchin later started his own hedge fund.
Last year, Trump harshly criticized hedge fund managers, saying they were “getting away with murder” and “I want to save the middle class. The hedge fund guys didn’t build this country. These are guys that shift paper around and they get lucky . They make a fortune, they pay no tax, it’s ridiculous.”
Mnuchin’s unusual last name is considered a Slavic version of the biblical name “Menachem,” meaning “one who comforts” and a common Hebrew first and last name. The violinist Yehudi Menuhin’s original family name was Mnuchin but was changed by his Belorussian immigrant parents when they became American citizens.
The modest Jewish connection
Despite his background, Mnuchin appears to have no public connection to Jewish life or Jewish institutions – his preferred philanthropies appear to be the Whitney Museum of American Art and the New York food rescue organization City Harvest.
A Bloomberg Businessweek profile of him in August did note that in July, a few months after he took the job in the campaign, “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.”
The article quoted Mnuchin’s friends and colleagues as saying it was hard for them to comprehend why someone like Mnuchin would take the job of raising money for Trump back when it looked like a difficult and thankless task. Trump’s likelihood of winning the Republican nomination and defeating Hillary Clinton seemed remote.
Bloomberg posited one theory: Mnuchin as “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.”
A move to politics and Washington will be the second major geographical and career change in Mnuchin’s life. In 2009 he left Wall Street for the West Coast to live closer to the Hollywood world he had become involved with as an investor, buying a $26 million mansion with his then-wife Heather, who he divorced in 2014.
That mansion was the target of an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in 2011 protesting the eviction of a tenant of a house owned by a bank Mnuchin co-owned, OneWest. The bank had profited on foreclosures in the housing collapse – demanding that his bank allow a modification of a loan that would let the family remain in their home.
Married twice, Mnuchin is engaged to Scottish actress Louise Linton, who recently endured controversy of her own when her memoir on volunteer service in Africa was ridiculed for inaccuracies and a “white savior” complex.
The Hollywood Reporter piece on Mnuchin noted that he plays a cameo role in Warren Beatty’s new film “Rules Don’t Apply,” which opened in theaters last week and in which Linton appears. The article also said Mnuchin has been joking with business associates “that his wedding might take place on the White House lawn.”
After Wednesday’s news, it looks like this may be no joke.