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Mnuchin’s Mission

CAMBRIDGE – US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is hemmed in on all sides. Domestically, he’s trapped between the promises he has made (such as the “Mnuchin rule” that taxes wouldn’t be cut for the rich), the actions of President Donald Trump (whose tax plan includes cuts for the rich), and simple arithmetic (which makes the administration’s conflicting pledges impossible to fulfill). But even on the international stage, where US treasury secretaries typically enjoy more latitude and esteem, Mnuchin is likely to have a hard time.

After all, the Trump administration has made it clear that it does not intend to fulfill the global leadership commitments that Mnuchin’s predecessors have overseen. Given Trump’s belief that international negotiations are just a forum for making unilateral demands, how could Mnuchin – who, like his boss, lacks government experience – persuade other countries that adherence to common rules and norms, such as open trade, is in everyone’s interest?

Trump’s entire administration is surely expected to adhere to his “America first” approach. As a senior Treasury official recently declared, Mnuchin will be “pushing hard” to ensure that the G20 plays “a helpful role in advancing US interests.”

Fortunately, Mnuchin has so far avoided fulfilling one of Trump’s irrational promises: to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office. The next opportunity to take that step comes in April, when the biannual Treasury report to Congress is due. Mnuchin should let it pass.