It’s grift all the way down in the Trump administration. Thursday’s New York Times has the latest instance: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, leading trade talks with China, is “personally pushing Beijing to give the American film industry greater access to its markets.”
Prior to joining the Trump administration, Mnuchin was a Hollywood producer with an interest in the film production company StormChaser Partners. He was a producer of the 2017 blockbuster Wonder Woman, which made about $90 million in China. Little of that revenue came back to the film’s distributor, Warner Bros., because of China’s laws regarding foreign films. Mnuchin is trying to change those laws to make China’s markets more lucrative for Hollywood.
But not just for Hollywood. Before Mnuchin became treasury secretary, he sold his interest in StormChaser to his fiancée, Louise Linton, an actor and filmmaker. Now Linton is his wife, and that asset, listed in his 2018 financial disclosure, is considered by government ethics rules to be his as well as his wife’s. Clearly, opening up China’s film market wouldn’t just be profitable for Hollywood. It could be profitable for the Mnuchin-Linton team.
Mnuchin is going to have to testify before House and Senate lawmakers about the potential conflict of interest this presents, and about the prevalence the film issue has gained in his negotiations with China. The Times reports that, since trade talks started in 2018, lobbyists for the film industry have met with his topic deputies as well as Commerce Department officials, and Mnuchin “has been especially responsive to lobbying from the film industry.” That’s raising eyebrows in Congress.
“Two years into his tenure, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin continues to raise concerns about potential conflicts of interest and compliance with his ethics agreement,” said Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden. Former senior ethics counsel at Treasury Virginia Canter told the Times “it certainly creates a significant appearance issue. […] Not just because he previously was in the entertainment business, but because his spouse appears to have holdings in these films and is part of the film industry and may benefit if favorable terms are negotiated with China.” That seems to be the plan.