With Donald Trump and Pelosi barely on speaking terms, and the White House preoccupied with the coronavirus outbreak, Mnuchin and Pelosi’s relationship is central to staving off economic collapse. When they speak by phone, they will step away from aides, cutting down on leaks and building trust. Their conversations last week led to an agreement for paid sick leave, free testing, and other measures meant to blunt the virus’s impact. That deal took work: One day, the former Goldman Sachs executive and the avatar of San Francisco liberalism spoke 20 times. As the coronavirus spreads and the nation shuts down, inflicting unprecedented economic damage, even more pressure will be put on the unlikely partners to keep talking.
Pelosi’s team made a few heartening discoveries during previous negotiations with Mnuchin: He’s a pragmatist and a power center in his own right. Over the summer, Pelosi hosted a meeting in her office with Mnuchin and two of Trump’s fiscal hawks—Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Budget Chief Russell Vought—to talk about raising the debt ceiling.
“It was clear right away that Mnuchin was in charge. He said at the meeting, ‘I’m here as long as it takes,’” the Democratic aide told me. Pelosi was put off by the more hard-line stance coming from Mulvaney, who sought deeper domestic spending cuts. By the end, she refused to even meet with Mulvaney, the aide said. It was just as well. The agreement that emerged gave Pelosi what she wanted: more money for health, education, and other Democratic spending priorities. It staved off a default on the nation’s loans—which is what Mnuchin needed. Fiscal conservatives balked at rising deficits, but it didn’t matter. Mnuchin was driving economic policy.